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China's Deadly Mines

March 16, 2005

Editorial published 03/16/2005 in the Washington Post

Cecil E. Roberts
International President, United Mine Workers of America

Last year more than 6,000 miners died in fires, floods and explosions in China's coal mines. That's a staggering average of 16 deaths per day. Sadly, this average was dwarfed on Valentine's Day, when 214 coal miners perished in a single violent explosion at the Sunjiawan mine in northeastern Liaoning province. It was China's worst coal mine disaster in several decades. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) mourns the tragic loss of these Chinese miners, and we join the world in calling on China to get serious about coal mine health and safety and stop this madness.

In developing nations such as China, India and Ukraine, the growing number of coal mine accidents -- and deaths -- constantly reminds the UMWA of why coal miners' health and safety must take priority over increased operator profits -- both here and abroad. The world's ever-increasing demand for cheap energy cannot be allowed to supersede the need for coal miners to have the best health and safety protections available.

In the United States we have been fortunate that the number of coal mining deaths has declined steeply. In the early 20th century, the number of deaths in America's coal mining industry nearly equaled the numbers that some of these developing nations are experiencing today.

Things are much better now, and I attribute a large part of the nation's turnaround to the activism and diligence of UMWA members nationwide. They fought long and hard to win passage of the 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act, and because of that legislation, coal mining deaths have declined significantly in the United States.

In 2003, a new generation of Chinese leaders publicly indicated their support for increased worker safety protections. The new leaders even enacted the country's first national safety laws. But judging by last year's 6,000-plus coal mining deaths -- and now the Valentine's Day explosion -- it is clear that China's leaders still have a very long way to go, particularly with respect to the nation's coal mining industry. What is also clear is that it is way past time for China's actions to start matching its rhetoric.

The UMWA calls on the Bush administration, Congress and world leaders to put far more pressure on China to begin implementing true health and safety protections for the country's coal miners and all its other workers. We believe the conditions many Chinese coal miners are forced to work under today may be worse than the conditions American coal miners endured from the late 1800s to the early-to-mid-1900s. That is an outrage, and it must be immediately rectified. Another way China should address the problem is to allow its workers to belong to legitimate, free trade unions.

Many pro-business and anti-worker forces continue to denounce organized labor's relentless pursuit to ensure that America's trade agreements include worker protections. What is happening in China's coal industry is a perfect example of why we will continue to do so. Workers' lives depend on it.

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