It’s early morning, the sun is shining through kitchen windows, aroma of coffee wafts pleasantly as toddlers squirm and squeal at your feet. The husband is off busying himself for the office, life could not be better.
On the other side of the world, in a village in China, another person is preparing for his day at work. He, too, has a wife who stands in a small area where the cooking is done, also, a happy toddler wriggles and squeals on the floor. But this man will not be going to an office. He will head off to a different type of job for twelve hours, probably for his sixth day in a row.
That job is back-breaking, dirty and pays very, very little. But, it is a job. It keeps the family from destitution. He is a proud man, this Chinese man, a loving man with a proud and loving wife in spite of their straitened circumstance.
At the end of the day, however, for one of these families their world will have changed, irrevocably, because one of these men is a coal miner, and, he will not be coming home.
The most dangerous occupation on earth…
It has been called the most dangerous occupation on earth. Some say you have a greater chance of surviving a war then you have of reaching retirement in this occupation.
Last year, 2,423, men died in Chinese coal mining accidents. That is marginally less than the 2,592 Coalition soldiers who have died in Afghanistan from 2001 to June 15, 2011.
Full year 2001 to end 2011, officially, 47,676 have lost their lives in mining accidents and these “official” figures are considered to be grossly under stated. My estimation, along with many other observers, is that since 2000 there have been upwards of 150,000 deaths. That is about the equivalent of wiping out Springfield, Missouri, Cairns, Australia or Dundee, Scotland.
These frightening statistics only relate to deaths on the job.There are countless non fatal accidents leaving miners injured and, most times, maimed for life. Then there is the “Black Lung” and other related bronchial diseases that, whilst not being as a direct consequence of a mine accident, cause untold deaths.
But we hear so little of this ongoing tragedy that is China coal mining. Maybe a headline here, or there, “27 trapped in Collapsed mine in…” and then, as if it never happened, nothing!
Nothing from the Chinese. Nothing from the Western press or Human Rights Groups. Nothing from international Coal Mining Associations or Organised Labour Groups. Nothing from the import/exporters of Chinese goods made with the energy these miners liberate from the bowels of the earth, and, nor from you or me who blissfully use our iPhones or turn on our computers unaware of the very sad “input costs” of their production process.
What then is being done and what can be done?
Firstly, credit to the Chinese Government. In the five years till end 2010 the fatality rate per million tons of coal produced decreased 73 percent. The central government has tried to crackdown heavily in an attempt to wipe out illegal mine operations and to enforce OH&S standards on legal ones.
They have displayed an intent but do not have the will and undivided focus to fully succeed because, in China, even the power of the supreme Chinese Communist Party has nothing on the power of the almighty Yuan.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of China is aware of the blight of corruption that festers at all levels of Chinese government and officialdom. Corruption allows illegal mines and dangerously unsafe mines not only to operate, but to prosper enormously. Even legal mines are involved in paying off inspectors to “not see” obvious breaches of existing OH& S laws.
But while the Government does have a desire to see mining accidents decrease there is no blowtorch being applied to them to instill a steely will. It is not being applied to them from either the media in China or the west, nor from international governments, nor from Human Rights Organisations.
Whilst good men, loving men, lay at the bottoms of cold, wet, dark, coal shafts waiting to die and others await their turn to die tomorrow, and the day after, we are, it would seem, prepared, to just stand by and do nothing.
Stephen Sullivan is a social commentator and blogger. His interests are Australia, China, the Uyghur people of Xinjiang and human rights in China. You can follow him on twitter @ChinaLetter, or read his blog China letter, and his tumblr photo blog.