"Trying to get by" -- 400 Wanbao miners strike against wage arrears

(Broadcast on December 9, 2002)

On December 6, 2002, fire swept through the No.7 Shaft of the Wanbao Coal Mine located in Taonan City, Jilin province. Thirty miners died in the accident. Four days earlier on December 2, over 400 miners from the Wanbao Coal Mine No. 2 Shaft launched a strike to press management to settle wage arrears. The father of one of the striking miners gave me a detailed explanation of the situation.

Worker:

Yes, it's a strike. We've been on strike for the last week here at the Wanbao Mine.

Han Dongfang [Han]:

Which shaft is the strike affecting?

Worker:

Wanbao's Red Flag No 2 Shaft. It's because they [the mine management] are not paying wages.

Han:

Do you have miners in your family?

Worker:

Yes.

Han:

Surface worker or at the face?

Worker:

Face worker. My son digs coal at the face.

Han:

Is he taking part in the strike?

Worker:

For sure! There's no way he can't. No one is working and you can't do much on your own down there, can you?

Han:

How long has the mine been in wage arrears?

Worker:

They've been holding back up to six months’ wages every year since 1998. Some guys are owed 18, 19, even 20 months’ wages.

Han:

Were you a face worker?

Worker:

Yes.

Han:

Is your retirement pension guaranteed?

Worker:

Pensions have been privatised. [It is no longer the sole responsibility of the enterprise - Ed.]. The mine was holding back pensions before that. They should have been paying their [monthly] contribution of Rmb 50. They even deducted Rmb 14 from a subsidy we were getting. They owe us 10 months [of that].

Han:

How many months did they hold back the Rmb 50 for?

Worker:

Six years already!

Han:

What reason do they give?

Worker:

That the mine is inefficient.

Han:

Is it really inefficient?

Worker:

No, that's not the reason. It's all down to embezzlement with mine director the first to get his snout in the trough!

Han:

Do you have any hard evidence?

Worker:

Yes! We've petitioned the authorities about it countless times. No one takes any notice.

Han:

Which department did you petition?

Worker:

The provincial anti-corruption bureau and party disciplinary committee. In the end they passed the information over to Wanbao mine. Just today we went to the mine to talk to the bosses. We heard that provincial leaders had arrived, but we didn’t get to see anyone.

Han:

When did you go?

Worker:

This morning. I’ve just got home.

Han:

How many of you went?

Worker:

There were ten of us. We mainly wanted to hand over some evidence to the relevant leaders. This management have brought Wanbao mine to its knees. They’re telling us it’s because the mine is inefficient but they still siphon off millions in cash. The mine is supposed to be inefficient and the boss is driving around in a luxury car worth a fortune. What kind of logic is there in that? Where’s the justice when we workers are barely getting enough to eat and that lot are cruising around in luxury motors?

An employee from the Wanbao Control Office confirmed No.2 Shaft had already stopped work for six or seven days.

Han:

Which shaft are the striking miners from?

Control Office:

The big one. No.2 Shaft.

Han:

How many miners work there?

Control Office:

Four to five hundred - that’s only counting the face workers.

Han:

Are they all on strike?

Control Office:

Yes. There is no coal being mined right now.

Han:

So production at No 2 Shaft has come to a halt?

Control Office:

That’s right.

Han:

How long for?

Control Office:

Six or seven days. The workers here are just trying to get by. That’s perfectly normal isn’t it? They have no other choice. They’re owed over a year’s wages. How can they make ends meet?

A worker from the Wanbao Cement Factory told me that on December 9 there were two separate petitions by primary and secondary school teachers as well as workers in front of the hotel where provincial-level leaders from the coal mining bureau were staying. Both sets of workers were demanding that the question of wage arrears be addressed.

Cement Factory Worker:

The miners on strike at the moment went there again today. There were teachers and other workers as well - people from all the big work units! Students all got the afternoon off because the teachers went looking for the leaders. They are not going to let an opportunity like this go by when they have haven’t been paid in full for years! How could they?

The Wanbao Mine General Office confirmed that there were large numbers of workers petitioning. The situation was on the verge of descending into a crisis even though the mine bureau leaders had promised to issue a month of wages as soon as possible.

Office:

There are so many people owed wages! We still have a strike situation going on down here. We are getting on with our work and we have got officials down here trying to get the situation sorted out. Things are gradually calming down. The collective petitions have started up again because top provincial government leaders and mine bureau officials are in town. There really are a lot of workers here with petitions! Yesterday there were about 300 people from the Red Flag No. 2 Shaft. They went to the Emergency Rescue Command Office and the Wanbao Mine Hotel. They were promised a temporary solution of a month’s wages, and another two months’ wages before the New Year.

Han:

That was before Spring Festival, right?

Office:

Yes. Paying two months’ owed wages.

Han:

Did it calm the situation down for a while?

Office:

Yes, but it didn’t do anything to remove the reasons for all this instability. A crisis could still erupt at any moment. The situation involves lots of workers and huge amounts of back pay, and just about all the Wanbao’s production units are in arrears to their workers.

Han:

Has the union done anything for the striking workers?

Office:

The union is doing everything it can to make sure things stay calm. Its starting point is to uphold stability in the mines.

An employee from No.2 Shaft told me that the surface workers supported the action by the face workers. He said that the strike was pretty much spontaneous and everyone had walked out after talking together in the changing rooms while getting ready to go on shift.

Worker:

There are a few going into work but not many.

Han:

Who are the people still going down the shaft?

Worker:

The team leaders, not ordinary workers!

Han:

They’re all team leaders?

Worker:

About twenty in all.

Han:

Are there any signs of the striking workers going back to work?

Worker:

That’s hard to say.

Han:

What are the conditions for a return to work?

Worker:

There are no conditions as such. They just want the money owed to them! We are owed money here as well. In the last three years, since 2000, thirteen and a half months of wages have not been paid.

Han:

They owe you thirteen and a half months of wages?

Worker:

Correct.

Han:

Do the surface workers support or oppose the strike, or are they neutral?

Worker:

They support it.

Han:

Has there been any concrete solidarity action?

Worker:

The workers are not organised like that. The action going on now happened after everyone discussed it in the changing rooms when they were getting ready to go to work. It was spontaneous, nobody organised it.

Han:

Have there been any strikes like this in the past?

Worker:

Never. This is the first time. They just want the money they worked for.

Han:

And they’re not getting it.

Worker:

They haven’t been paid, and that’s it.

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