The deadliest shafts on earth

Xiao Huazhong lives in Northeast China and has spent half his life working in coalmines. Now 61 years old, the lack of security and health standards in the shafts where he dug for coal are taking their toll. He can barely walk, panting for air and coughing up blood.

He is retired, without health insurance to treat his black lung or other compensation to keep him from poverty.

“Most miners in China now are unskilled migrant workers who have very little idea of their rights,” said Geoffrey Crothall of the China Labour Bulletin (CLB). The CLB is an NGO in Hong Kong that has pushed for workers rights in the People’s Republic since 1994.

In 2006, 6000 people died in China’s mines. Although the number of deaths is declining, there were still about 3200 casualties in 2008 (the result of the economic slowdown, Colthall believes) and government records show that more than 80 per cent of the mines are illegal, many of them suboperated and hidden from supervision.

The CLB provides a voice in support of workers claiming their legal rights. Its labour rights litigation program adopts cases like Xiao’s, seeking enforcement of new labour laws and informing untrained workers who often don’t know about their rights.   Low health and safety standards combine with weak enforcement make the mines some of the world’s deadliest work places.

“The government figures only account for reported accidents. A huge number of accidents, particularly small-scale accidents with just a few deaths, go unreported or are covered up. So it is impossible to get a really accurate figure,” Crothall said.

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