Climbing Out of a Deep, Dark Hole

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Coal is king in the northern Vietnamese province of Quang Ninh and has been for much of the century. Just as coal has defined the economy of the region, the flinty men who mine it have helped define its politics. In 1936, coal miners struck to protest unconscionable working conditions, an early and celebrated challenge to French colonial authority. For the past three decades, the miners of Quang Ninh have been working for the greater good of Vietnam, as a slogan painted in red at the Mao Khe mine reminds workers daily: produce coal to achieve the industrialization and modernization of the country. But the miners are now learning that socialism ain't what it used to be. Layoffs are putting thousands of mining families below the poverty line. Vietnam's faltering economic reforms have yet to create a go-go economy but have wiped out safety nets such as free medical care and education. I don't know what to do to get money, worries a Mrs. Hien, whose husband is now jobless. She would even consider selling her body, but says: No one would take me. Nor are there opportunities for miners to vent their grievances. In any other country there would be strikes and protests, says a laid-off miner in the town of Cam Pha. Here we would be arrested straight away. With all the contradictions of contemporary Vietnam--socialism wringing rewards from quasi-capitalism, modernized cities depending on the toil of poor farmers and laborers--the coal miners of Quang Ninh seem to inhabit the worst of all worlds. Working conditions in the mines, some of which are underground while the rest are massive pits up to 2 km deep, are stubbornly pre-modern. Rescue equipment is minimal, firefighting and first-aid support inadequate, ventilation neglected. Accidents are common. Last January, as Nguyen Manh Dien started his morning shift at Mao Khe, a buildup of natural methane triggered an explosion that tore through an underground shaft. Dien saw a flash and was thrown through the air. Rescue workers pulled him from the mine two hours later; 19 other miners died. Coal still helps fuel the industry that Vietnam has managed to build, including coal-burning power stations, cement factories and an underdeveloped steel industry. Most of those plants are state-owned, as are all of the mines. To aid industry coal is generally sold below its production price, which helps keep miner's wages at rock bottom: about $35 a month despite 48-hour weeks. To improve the situation, Vietnam has been exporting coal to other Asian countries: in 1997 the Vietnam National Coal Corp., known as Vinacoal, produced nearly 11 million tons, of which it exported one-third. The state-owned monopoly geared up production but demand dropped, as Japan, South Korea and China felt the effects of the Asian slump. The result: Vietnam now has 4 million tons of unsold coal and plans to cut output by 20%. That translates into layoffs throughout Quang Ninh, where Vinacoal is the province's main economic force. The monopoly employs 74,000 people, including 40,000 miners, and runs hotels, a civil engineering company, an explosives plant and, in Cam Pha, the local brewery. A further 250,000 are dependent on the mining sector for their livelihoods. To deal with the crunch, Vinacoal wanted to close mines on a rotating basis, but Vietnam's Politburo decided in June to order across-the-board production cuts instead. Minh, a former army officer who declines to give his full name, got his pink slip in June from one of the shallow-pit mines in Cam Pha. He currently hangs out with other unemployed buddies--some 3,000 have lost their jobs--hoping to find work at a nearby underground pit. To make do, his wife has started selling cigarettes, iced tea and beer at a sidewalk stand. It's not enough for the family budget, though, and she is feeling the strain. I hope the whole planet blows up, she seethes. Then we wouldn't have to worry about getting work anymore. Some of her customers, she says, think Vietnam should let a foreign company take over the mines. It's a sentiment that hasn't been heard in the province since the French left--but rarely have times been this hard. For a little extra cash, some unemployed workers sneak into the mines at night to steal coal. You can make about 10,000 dong a day selling stolen coal, says a laid-off miner. That's about 70 cents--the difference between getting by, or not, in Vietnam's coal country. Reported by Jonathan Birchall/Cam Pha