Mining in China fraught with danger, but higher pay draws workers to the industry

Chinese miners saved from hundreds of metres underground after being trapped for two weeks in a gold mine explosion in Qixia, China, on Jan 24, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - On Jan 10, a mineshaft in a Shandong goldmine collapsed after an explosion, trapping 22 miners.

But local officials in Yantai sat on the news for nearly 30 hours before notifying the provincial authorities, hampering rescue efforts. It took two weeks before 11 miners were pulled from deep underground, in an effort that had much of the country transfixed.

The accident, which killed 10 with one still missing, recast the spotlight on China's mining industry and its spotty safety record.

Mining accidents are not uncommon in this country, and the industry's safety regulations can be badly enforced.

According to the National Mine Safety Administration (NMSA), there were 573 mining-related deaths in 2020 - a 22 per cent decline from the previous year - and most were from non-coal mines, including those producing precious and non-precious metals.

But despite promises of reform and improving safety standards, mining officials admitted earlier this month that the industry is still somewhat loosely regulated, with poor safety standards.

"Laws and regulations have been repeatedly violated… enterprises aren't responsible; supervision can be increased… and more lessons can be learnt from past accidents," said Mr Zhao Yuhui, a spokesman for the NMSA.

In December last year, 23 miners died after a carbon monoxide leak at a coal mine.

In September, 16 workers were killed at another mine on the outskirts of Chongqing, also due to carbon monoxide.

Yet workers continue to flock to the industry.

According to Hong Kong-based labour rights group China Labour Bulletin (CLB), mining offers jobs with better pay for migrant workers, compared with other sectors like construction. Some 4 million workers are willing to take the additional risks for a few thousand yuan more, a substantial difference in rural areas.

This is especially prevalent when coal prices increase and illegal mines reopen, with little to no safety standards.

China is also the world's top producer of rare earths, which is integral in the production of electronics ranging from computer chips to mobile phones and even wind turbines.

"The government conducted a lot of checking but the effects are small. A lot of mines which have accidents have received repeated warnings but they just pay the penalty and continue their work," said Aidan Chiu, a spokesman for CLB.

For Mr Zhang, a former miner who now works as a delivery driver, it was the constant fear of not knowing when a serious accident would happen that led him to leave the industry.

Rescuers carry a miner on a stretcher after a gold mine explosion in Qixia, China, on Jan 24, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

The 28-year-old Hebei native, who declined to give his full name, worked for three years in a coal mine in Datong, in the northern Shanxi province.

"There were many times we had to run out because there were overly high levels of toxic gas, or there was a power trip and you're left in darkness… maybe I was not used to it but it was very frightening," he told The Straits Times.

While he now makes about 8,000 yuan (S$1,650) a month as a driver, about 20 per cent less than he used to, Mr Zhang feels safe and is unlikely to have the lung problems long-time miners often struggle with.

Mine officials contacted by The Straits Times declined to be interviewed, citing sensitivities.

But former mine workers have previously said minor incidents are often not reported so as to burnish safety records.

Security officers keep watch at Hushan gold mine after the Jan 10 explosion in Qixia, China, on Jan 21, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Officials also admitted on Friday that safety issues are still a big problem in mines.

"The illegal construction and production of coal mines has not been stopped," said Li Wanchun, chief engineer of the Emergency Management Department.

"There is still a big gap in the implementation (of safety protocols)."

Meanwhile, China has been trying to wean itself off coal as an energy source - in part to lower costs and also to meet an ambitious national target of becoming carbon neutral by 2060.

And there are efforts to increase the use of technology in the labour intensive industry. At the Xinyuan mine in Shanxi, collection of data like temperature and methane concentration is being powered by 5G technology from Huawei.

"It will take time, but in the future, miners will wear suits and white shirts," Han Weihai, manager of Huawei's mine projects in Shanxi, told Bloomberg News in an interview.

"People no longer want to work in a mine, especially young people with college degrees."

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