September 12, 2008

Poverty Drives Chinese into Hazardous Mines

By Ben Blanchard

Why anyone would choose to work in China's often deadly mining industry appears to be a mystery, until you talk to people like Lu Renyan. For him, the motivating factor is poverty.

Lu lives and works in the gritty northern province of Shanxi, just a few hundred meters from the site of a mudslide Wednesday caused by the collapse of a heap of mining refuse. The death toll, last reported at 151, was expected to rise.

The China Daily newspaper quoted the country's work safety chief, Wang Jun, on Thursday as saying there was little hope for hundreds of people who were feared buried under the mud. The report also cited witnesses as saying the village that had been buried was home to about 1,000 people.

"I can earn 1,000 yuan, 3,000 yuan or up to 5,000 yuan a month working here," Lu said, pointing at the entrance to an iron ore mine.

Those monthly wages are the equivalent of $150 to $730 - not a bad sum in a county where the annual net income in rural areas was only a little more than 4,000 yuan last year.

"The work is hard, but it's worth it," added Lu, who is from Chongqing, hundreds of kilometers away.

Stagnating rural incomes have fueled a massive exodus from the countryside to wealthy coastal regions in recent years, as poorly educated farmers flocked to work on building sites in major cities.

But others have gone to work in the coal, iron ore and other mines that dot the country, which provide the raw materials needed to feed China's economic boom. They are undaunted by the almost constant reports of disasters at these sites.

"This is a lot safer than working in a coal mine," Pang Wenxu, an iron ore miner, said. "There are no gas explosions there. I'm not worried, despite this accident."

This year, officials announced plans to crack down on reckless mining in this polluted region, which is scattered with small mines and smelters. Yet local governments often lack the power or the will to police companies that provide jobs and revenue to their economies.

Beijing has now ordered urgent checks on mines throughout the country to stem a recent surge in accidents, The People's Daily newspaper reported Thursday. The Chinese president and prime minister have also promised legal action against those found responsible for the Tashan disaster, the Xinhua news agency reported.

The mines in China are the most dangerous in the world, killing nearly 3,800 people last year, as strong demand for raw materials has pushed many managers to cut corners on safety. The demand for iron ore has encouraged miners to dig up even low-grade ore, often with little regard for safety or the environment.

Soaring commodity prices have drawn workers, and make it worthwhile for unscrupulous people to take the risk of continuing to operate mines that the government has refused to license.

Many of the dead at Tashan were migrant workers whose identities might never be known, since they worked in a shady industry not known for keeping accurate records of workers or their next of kin.

Zhang Hexiang, who is from Sichuan Province and who witnessed the disaster, said he saw several of friends being swept away by the wall of thick mud, which snapped electricity poles and mangled cars. Despite this, he said, he would probably stay in mining.

"I can earn much more here than being on a farm," he said. "It's dangerous, but you know the risks. Eighty yuan a day is not bad."

Originally published by Reuters.

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