Rescuers use pick, shovel and bare hands after 150 die in mine blast

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The Independent Online

China's deadly mining industry has claimed more victims - 241 miners trapped 600 feet underground in the south-west province of Guizhou by a gas explosion. Early estimates suggest 150 died in the blast at the state-run Mugonggou mine near Shuicheng city. By yesterday afternoon, 83 miners had been rescued and 34 bodies recovered.

China's deadly mining industry has claimed more victims - 241 miners trapped 600 feet underground in the south-west province of Guizhou by a gas explosion. Early estimates suggest 150 died in the blast at the state-run Mugonggou mine near Shuicheng city. By yesterday afternoon, 83 miners had been rescued and 34 bodies recovered.

Search teams are digging with picks, shovels and bare hands. "We're using human power only," a mine official told the state news agency Xinhua. "It's too dangerous to use machines or explosives - that could lead to another collapse."

Last month, four miners in Shaanxi province survived 13 days underground by eating coal dust. They were the lucky ones. China digs up a quarter of the world's coal, and provides four-fifths of the world's coal-industry deaths.

On Tuesday, the official China Coal News ran an unusually critical cover story on the "shocking" number of coal mining fatalities in Guizhou alone. Since mid-July, 20 accidents in the province have killed 136 miners.

With Wednesday night's blast, the death toll doubled. "The situation really is getting worse and worse," said Han Dongfang, director of China Labour Bulletin, based in Hong Kong.

"The government has no money to invest in state-owned enterprises. They are closing one by one, the workers are losing their jobs, or not being paid, so nobody cares about keeping up health and safety standards."

The government reacts to each new disaster with solemn warnings and the promise of inquiries, but there is increasing difficulty having Peking's writ enforced at the local level.

The central government urges firms to make safety the foremost concern, but China's creed of market-Leninism demands economic results, encouraging local officials to spend on new production lines rather than upgrading safety measures. Han Dongfang recommends a bold reform, the formation of real, independent trade unions, not the party-dominated groups that currently pass for unions.

"The workers are there every day, and see colleagues being injured every week," he said. "If they had a union, they could raise these issues and negotiate with the boss. But the government is not doing this.

"It fears that whenever the workers are organised, they won't just want better health and safety, they will think about something else. The government is afraid to give any freedom to the workers, or anybody in China."

Han, a former railway electrician, frightened Peking far more than the student protesters when he took his Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation to Tiananmen Square in 1989. He was jailed, then exiled, and refused re-entry into mainland China.

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