Wang Bingjun, a trade union head of Yangquan Coal (Group) Co. Ltd., a leading state-owned coal company, has been very busy for the past month seeking compensation for victims of a coal mine gas blast.
The gas blast in a coal mine of the company based in north China's Shanxi Province killed 28 miners on Aug. 14. During a month period, the province, well known for its coal mining industry, saw three coal mine accidents with 98 miners dead.
"Workplace safety statistics are not very satisfying," said Yao Xinzhang, president of the trade union of Shanxi Province, who is attending the 14th National Congress of Chinese trade unions being held here from Sept. 22 to 26.
In the first eight months of this year, China reported 10 workplace accidents that killed at least 30 people each, and the total death roll reached 461.
Trade unions should play a more active role in supervising workplace safety in order to better protect workers' rights and interests, said Wang Zhaoguo, president of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) in his address to the national congress.
All coal mines of the Yangquan Coal (Group) have been closed for safety examination after the accident. The trade union set up an investigation team, made up of miners, to help examine the safety measures and management in every mine.
"The families of 27 victims had received compensation before I came to Beijing for the congress and my colleagues are working on the last one," Wang said.
At another leading coal company, Datong Coal Mine Corp., also located in Shanxi, a skilled veteran miner is selected by his colleagues to be a part-time workplace safety watchdog in every working group. Every day he would report to the company's safety work department whether safety measures are in place and the operation is in line with rules.
The idea came from the company's trade union which also organizes inspection teams on workplace safety made up of miners, according to Jin Shanyuan, head of the Datong Coal Mine Corp. trade union.
Compared with large state-owned coal mines which have regular watchdogs including the trade union, safety problems are worse in small-sized private coal mines which mostly hire migrant workers.
"Poverty-stricken migrant workers from rural areas will risk their lives to work in very poor conditions underground and being less educated they have neither ideas nor resources to protect their own rights and interests," Yao Xinzhang said.
Most private coal mine owners are reluctant to set up trade unions. Yao said one of the top tasks of the Shanxi Province trade union is to set up as many trade unions as possible in private companies.
In some places the trade union receives help from the administrations.
Private coal mines are required to let trade unions in by the local government in Yuncheng City of Shanxi or they will not be approved for operation.
All 75 small-sized private coal mines have set up trade unions and one third of trade union heads were directly elected by miners.
"Sometimes it is quite difficult for us to supervise," Jin Shanyuan said. "Whether our work is effective depends on whether the company cooperates or not. There lacks a mechanism to make the managers take in and respond to our voice no matter whether they like it or not."
Laws and regulations are not practical enough, said Prof. Chen Ying of the Chinese Workers' Movement Institute.
The Law on Work Safety, which took effect in November last year, granted trade unions the power to supervise workplace safety and take part in investigating accidents.
But the law includes no practical items on how the trade unions will act as a watchdog and what happens to the company if it refuses to let trade unions participate in the supervision, Chen said.
In east China's Zhejiang Province, known for its booming non-state economy, trade unions plan to introduce a joint committee on workplace safety into private companies, consisting of both managers and workers, especially workers from the assembly lines.
With a vote in the decision-making process of the committee and regular inspection, the supervision on work safety will be effective, Chen commented.