Miners: Pressed Down To Dice With Death
By Farooque Chowdhury
25 October, 2010
Deaths come in rows in mines. Crude appropriation of labor, and deprived life invigorate it. But all fail to subdue miners the world over. They stand unvanquished atop this profit driven world, symbolized by the San Jose miners in Chile.
Despite the ruthless reality, in Chile, miners felt proud as Sepulveda, one of the rescued miners in the desolate Atacama Desert, said: “We have to change the way we work. The working world needs lots of changes. We, the miners, we won’t let it rest.” It resound a manifesto.
Miners know the reality of ruthless poverty: ageless death waits there down into mines. The alliance of profit and hunger compels them to work in places feared by death. “I left school and started mining because there are no other jobs available,” said D R Congo worker Antoine. “At least I can earn something every day.” (Solidarity Center Education Fund) Hunger pushes similar millions to mines with least or no safety measures.
The San Jose miners “knew they were dicing with death in a mine plagued by accidents. Some had been planning to quit…but desperation drove them on.” It was a desperation made by poverty, a grand act of theft by capital. María Segovia said, “The mine was weeping a lot.” María, sister of Dario, one of the rescued miners, used miners’ expression for falling rocks and the sounds of creaking. They knew that the sound warned of trouble.
Miners, as all workers followed by a huge reserve army of labor, have no choice between low wages and weak safety standards. The triumph in Chile was followed by deaths of miners in Ecuador, and China.
The Asia-Pacific experiences more than half the world's mining, one of the most dangerous occupations, accidents. China has the highest incidence of mining deaths and accidents in the world. In 2008, there were 2,845 mining accidents in China, killing 4,746 people, an average of 13 deaths each day of the year. (Lee Han Shih, “Death by Mining - A Third World Affair”, asia! magazine, March 2, 2009) In China, 153 miners got trapped in a flooded mine. Accidents killed 2,631 coal miners in 2009. In 2002, it was 6,995.
In 2007, 108 died in Kemerovo Oblast, Russia; in 2005, 210 coal miners died in the Sunjiawan mine, in China; in 2006, 50 miners died in Dhanbad, India. (Down to Earth, Jun. 2007 vol: 16, issue: 20070615) In Kazakhstan in 2004 – 2006, 91miners died in mines.
The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said: “More than 103,000 workers died in the mining industry … from 1911 to 1995.” (NIOSH Worker Health Chartbook, September 2000) The US Mine Safety and Health Administration said: From 1880 to 1910, mine explosions and other accidents claimed thousands of victims. With 3,242 deaths, 1907 was the deadliest year in US coal mining history. The year also saw America's worst mine explosion ever that killed 358 near Monongah, WV. One of the deadliest non-coal mining accidents was in Montana in 1917, 163 died. During earlier decades, total deaths in all types of US mining averaged 1,500 or more. It decreased on average during the 1990's, to below 100 and reached a record low in 2004 with 55 deaths. In 2007, there were 65 mining fatalities. In 2001-2005, the annual average in coal mining decreased to 30 fatalities. In metal and nonmetal mining, there was an average of 233 deaths annually in the 1930s. It decreased to 32 in 2001-2005. There was an all-time low 23 coal mining fatalities in 2005. In 2002, it was 28. In metal and nonmetal mining, the all-time low for fatalities was 26 in 2003. It increased to 32 in 2007. These are only a tiny fraction of miners’ full death-“story”.
All citizens in all countries shall be haunted by the question: why death is so cheap in mines? Susan Kushner Resnick, author of Goodbye Wifes and Daughters, the story of the Smith coal mine disaster of 1943 provides an answer:
Another year, another group of men killed in a coal mine. You already know the story, because it rarely changes. Inspectors discover violations. Mine operators ignore them. Miners work through the danger because they need to make a living. Gas builds up and explodes. Some men die instantly from the force of the blast, and some die from the carbon monoxide. There are always a few unaccounted for or trapped, and those mysteries keep everyone’s hope alive for a while. Then, usually, they die, too….This is what happened Monday in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Whitesville, West Virginia.…25 miners died after an explosion. And Massey Energy, a firm notorious for cutting safety corners, owns the mine.…A bigger problem than the inherent danger of harvesting profit from the earth was the dearth of safety laws.… “We can be preventing these disasters and we aren’t,’’ said Phil Smith, communications director for United Mine Workers of America. Why not? ….The most obvious is that the wealthy mine owners value profits more than lives. It’s simply easier to pay fines than to fix what’s broken in a mine. Massey Energy could certainly fix its mines. It had revenue of $2.6 billion in 2008. …many companies choose to run cheaper, more dangerous mines. As inspectors slap them with bigger fines, they fight safety even harder. “Many of the operators are contesting citations and delaying the process of the citations being enforced,’’ Smith said. But that can’t be the only reason miners are dying. Politics may also play a part. Don Blankenship, president of Massey, is a big wig in West Virginia political circles. He reportedly gives thousands of dollars to politicians. Finally, there are paychecks. If the Upper Big Branch mine had been unionized, Smith said, “our safety committee would have made sure the mine was aggressively followed up on and citations dealt with.’’ But it wasn’t. Not everyone can find a job in a union shop. But some choose to work in nonunion mines because they tend to pay better. Smith says when a union mine and a nonunion mine are located near each other, the nonunion men make a bit more per hour. What they lose, he notes, is the freedom to complain when safety is ignored. That kind of talk can lead to an escort to the door. … Bob Wakenshaw was 12 when his father and both grandfathers perished in 1943 in Montana’s worst coal mine disaster. It was during World War II, when miners didn’t complain … because they were providing coal for the war effort. They felt it was their patriotic duty. Besides, they were finally making money after the Depression. The same motivation is likely driving today’s miners. They’re just trying to take care of their families. “If, in these dire economical times, you are afraid of losing your job if you complain, that threatens your family and livelihood,’’ Wakenshaw said. (“Mine disasters and money”, The Boston Globe, April 7, 2010, [paragraphs in the original have not been followed here])
In 2006, 63 Mexican miners buried and died inside a mine. Their bodies were not even recovered. Columnist Fernando del Paso penned: “Here we didn’t lift a finger, we didn’t even try — not even modestly — to save the life of at least one of our miners in Pasta de Conchos.” Raúl Vera, a bishop, has called for a reopening of the investigation, and for filing charges against all responsible including the former and present ministers of labor.
Death, poverty and fear constantly accompany miners, as like all working people. Their families are not free from fear that the system supplies. Michael D. Yates, Associate Editor, Monthly Review writes: “The climate in such a [mining] town is one of perpetual insecurity and fear, emotions compounded by the danger of the work in the mines….Fear of losing a job. Fear of not finding a job. …Fear of boss’s wreath. Fear your house might burn down. Fear your kids will get hurt.” (“Class: A Personal Story”, Monthly Review, July-August, 2006)
There are diseases in miners’ world. Diseases among miners differ depending on type of mine: coal, gold, etc. But most miners suffer irrespective of country and type of mine. Thirst for higher profit, and state’s denial to take responsibility creates and worsens the situation that take away miners’ earning, and life.
In sub-Saharan Africa, mining for gold, diamonds, and precious minerals could be driving entire Africa’s tuberculosis epidemic. Gold mining countries had about 50 percent higher rates of tuberculosis than countries that did not mine for gold.
Researchers at Oxford and Brown universities, the University of California, San Francisco and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimate that the mining industry in Africa may be implicated in as many as 760,000 new cases of tuberculosis each year, due to factors such as silica dust in mines, crowded working and living conditions, and the spread of HIV. Tuberculosis has been on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years with a doubling of the annual incidence from 173 to 351 per 100,000 population between 1990 and 2007. (David Stuckler, Sanjay Basu, Martin McKee and Mark Lurie, Mining and Risk of Tuberculosis in Sub-Saharan Africa, American Journal of Public Health, June 1, 2010)
Similar facts from other countries make an epos of miners’ pain. But miners’ seemingly endless journey through pain and death down to mine only reminds those lines:
O death! The poor man’s dearest friend,
The kindest and the best!
Welcome the hour, my aged limbs
Are laid with thee at rest!
Farooque Chowdhury, a Bangladesh-free lancer, contributes on socioeconomic issues.