The condition of the working class: England 1844, China 2005

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According to Engels, the coal miner endured an unenviable excess of evils. “In the whole British Empire there is no occupation in which a man may meet his end in so many diverse ways as in this one. The coal-mine is the scene of a multitude of the most terrifying calamities, and these come directly from the selfishness of the bourgeoisie.” (The Condition of the Working Class in England, ‘The Mining Proletariat’). Gas explosions took place “in one mine or another, nearly every day”. Build-ups of “carbonic acid gas” suffocated “every one who gets into it”. Proper ventilation of the mines could have improved safety, “but for this purpose the bourgeoisie has no money to spare”. Roof collapses were common because, given the growing economy’s thirst for energy, it was in the interest of the bourgeoisie “to have the seams worked out as completely as possible, and hence the accidents of this sort”. The employment of children and young people in the mines was common, and all complained of being overtired: “Children throw themselves down on the stone hearth or the floor as soon as they reach home, fall asleep at once without being able to take a bite of food, and have to be washed and put to bed while asleep; it even happens that they lie down on the way home, and are found by their parents late at night asleep on the road.” And when the workers sought recourse to the law they were confronted by the fact that, “In nearly all mining districts the people composing the coroner's juries are, in almost all cases, dependent upon the mine owners, and where this is not the case, immemorial custom insures that the verdict shall be: ‘Accidental Death’” (Engels, ibid.)

The working class in China is paying a terrible tribute for the ‘economic miracle of Red capitalism’ in terms of unemployment, poverty, lack of education, destruction of the environment. None suffers worse than the mining proletariat. In the worst mining disaster since 1949, at least 203 miners were killed when a gas explosion occurred at the Sunjiawan mine, close to the North-eastern city of Fuxin. This was no isolated incident. According to the BBC, “more than 5,000 people died in explosions, floods and fires in China's mines in 2004… China last year produced 35% of the world's coal but reported 80% of global deaths in colliery accidents. The industry cost the lives of 15 miners a day in the first nine months of 2004” (‘Chinese mine explosion kills 203’, BBC Online, 15/2/05).

Some argue that the problem is caused by local governments selling operating licences to small ‘private’ mines that show little regard for safety. Such mines “flourish where the coal seams are too narrow to be cut by machinery, but China's insatiable demand for coal creates a market for every lump. Local governments often prefer to sell the licences and collect profit-based fees or taxes than run the mines themselves” (‘China's miners pay for growth’, BBC Online, 8/12/04). There are calls for the state to step in to take ownership of the smaller mines because safety is supposedly better in the state-run mines. However, the majority of the ‘accidents’ in the past year have occurred precisely in these state-run mines, such as the one in Fuxin. Calls for the central state to step in to increase regulation also fly in the face of the official policy of the Chinese state to de-regulate and close unprofitable concerns.

It is not just the miners who die, but their sons and daughters as well. In early March, mining dynamite stored at the home of a mine operator in the Shanxi province exploded, destroying an adjacent primary school, killing 20, including children, several teachers and the mine operator himself. (‘China blast kills schoolchildren’, BBC Online, 3/3/05). The youth suffer in the textile industry as well. According to a report from the New-York based NGO Human Rights in China, the owner of a textile company in Hebei Province illegally employed a number of young girls as labourers. In late December they were sleeping in a shared dormitory room measuring less than 10 square meters when they were overcome by charcoal fumes and were later found unconscious by the factory owner. The report goes on to say that without checking if the girls were actually dead, the factory owner put them into coffins for cremation. When the families of the dead girls were finally allowed to see their bodies, “[they] were horrified to discover that at least two of the girls… appeared to have been alive when they were placed in the coffins. Their faces were caked with vomit and tears, their noses had bled and their necks were swollen. One was found to have kicked through the cardboard lining of her coffin, and her body was twisted in apparent struggle.” (‘Cover-up of Child Labor Deaths in Hebei’,, 2/3/05).

At the time Engels wrote his study, in 1844, capitalism was in its youthful throws, it was a mode of production in its ascendancy. The proletariat’s indignation against such inhuman working conditions took the form of combinations into trade unions and the struggle for reforms that capitalism could really allow. However, history is not repeating itself today in China, not even as farce. “A true disaster is looming in China. What's happening in China today is not the harbinger of a new phase in the development of the productive forces, but of a new plunge into economic collapse… It will not be long before the demise of the Chinese dragon shows what lies behind these miracles - the sombre reality of a bankrupt capitalist system.” (‘China: economic miracle or capitalist mirage?’, WR 278, October 2004).

Trevor 5.3.05