Much has been written about the break-neck pace of the growing Chinese economy. We applaud the boom when it drives up the prices of gold, base metals, uranium and coal. We cheer when Canadian companies take advantage of the strong prices to open new and profitable mines around the world.
China is now the globe’s largest consumer of basic commodities, such as steel, coal and grain. It produces one-third of the world’s coal, and mines are pressured to boost output ever higher. The pressure to produce and lax safety standards took over 6,000 lives last year. By some reports that figure is 75% of all miners killed on the job in 2004.
Coal mine explosions, floods and collapse are nothing new in the Chinese industry. Last October 148 coal miners died in a gas explosion. On Feb. 14, 2005, 215 miners died in the Sunjiawan mine in the northeastern part of the country. It was the worst single disaster in 50 years. China reported that there were 6,027 deaths in 3,639 separate accidents in its coal mines in 2004. Last week at least 16 more miners were dead and others missing after a blast at the Xinfu mine in Heilongjiang province.
The Chinese government recognizes that this number of accidents and deaths is not acceptable. At this month’s National People’s Congress, premier Wen Jiabao promised to invest US$361.4 million this year to improve conditions at key state-owned coal mines. That is only a tiny fraction of the estimated US$6-billion investment that should have been made on coal mine safety in the last 10 to 15 years.
There is money to be made in Chinese coal mining. A US$3-billion IPO is planned for the biggest coal producer, and the second-largest is hoping to raise US$1 billion with its IPO. We hope the investment does more than line the pockets of the privileged few. It is time sufficient money is put back into worker health and safety in the coal mines of China.