Loose licensing and lazy supervision of mining projects have allowed miners to get away with murder
Rescuers search for the bodies of workers who were buried alive in a stone quarry collapse in the north-central Nghe An Province's Yen Thanh District on April 1
"I will return and eat after the first trip," Nguyen Dinh Phuc told his wife when she asked him to have breakfast before he left for work.
Phuc never returned.
Those were the last words the 42-year-old tractor driver, father of seven children, said to his wife Thai Thi Sinh, who stays at home taking care of their children. Their youngest is 15 months old and others are at school. The bereaved wife and children have nothing but an old house in Nam Thanh Commune in Nghe An Province.
Early morning on April 1, Phuc drove his tractor down to a mountain near his house where he had been transporting stone out of a quarry for several years.
While Phuc was waiting for stones to be loaded onto the vehicle, a huge rock block cracked and slid down the quarried mountainside, burying him and 23 other workers. Eighteen of them were buried alive, including Phuc, while six others suffered multiple injuries. A group of workers nearby had a providential escape.
Nguyen Duy Phuong, another driver carrying stones from the other side of the mountain, said the accident happened at around 7 a.m., less than one hour into work.
"When I heard what happened, I rushed there, but could not find my wife. She was buried along with the others under the stones," said Phuong, who lost his wife Nguyen Thi Loc and his sister-in-law Phan Thi Tam to the accident.
Most workers at the site, which locals called the Co mountainside, were farmers from poor communes in Yen Thanh District. Besides working on their small farms, they worked as daily laborers at local stone quarries without any contract. They needed all the off-farm work they could get to survive, and daily wages of VND70,000 (US$3.36) and VND80,000 ($3.84) could not be ignored.
RECENT STONE QUARRY ACCIDENTS
"¢ January 18, 2011: A worker slipped and fell to his death while trying to set explosives at a height of 100 meters at the Len Hung Cay quarry in the central Quang Binh Province's Bo Trach District.
"¢ October 20, 2010: Two workers were killed and two others seriously injured when a huge stone block collapsed at a quarry in Thanh Hoa Province's Cam Thuy District.
"¢ October 13, 2010: A stone collapse at a quarry in Thanh Hoa Province's Vuc Mountain killed two workers and injured another.
"¢ April 13, 2010: An unexpected blast at a stone quarry in Ha Tinh Province's Hong Linh Town killed two workers and injured three.
"¢ August 8, 2009: Two workers were killed as a stone quarry at a height of 200 meters in Quang Tri Province's Cam Lo District suddenly collapsed.
"¢ December 27, 2007: Seven people were killed and one seriously injured when a stone block collapsed at Ru Moc Quarry in Ha Tinh Province's Thach Ha District.
"¢ December 15, 2007: A stone quarry collapse in Nghe An Province's Tuong Duong District killed 18 workers.
But "none of us ever thought the rock would collapse," Phuong said.
Among the dead was Tran Thi Sau of Nam Thanh Commune's Son Thanh neighborhood, who had been working hard to raise her three children, now studying at universities, two in Ho Chi Minh City and one in Dak Lak Province. The accident has orphaned them, after their father succumbed last year to a serious disease.
"She worked really hard to send her children to school. Now that she is dead, I don't know if they can continue their studies," said Dinh Phuc, Sau's brother-in-law.
It took more than two days after the accident for rescue teams to get the body of the last worker out. The Yen Thanh District People's Committee, the local government, suspended operations at the Co Mountainside stone quarry as soon as the search work was completed on April 3. The area was cordoned off for investigations.
On April 4, senior lieutenant colonel Nguyen Duy Thanh of the Nghe An Police Department announced an official probe into the accident and the Chin Men Company that was licensed to operate at the quarry since 2007.
The following day, provincial police detained the company's director Phan Cong Chin for "violating labor regulations causing serious consequences."
Chin Men Company was also accused of selling the mining rights to Chin's brothers-in-law, Nguyen Tho Hoang and Nguyen Tho Vu, both of whom were killed in the accident.
Police said the company had failed to follow the mining plan approved by the provincial authorities. According to the plan, the stones would be exploited in layers from the top to bottom of the mountain. However, the company set off explosions midway on the stone walls in a bid to save explosives, violating the approved plan as well as safety regulations in stone mining, they said.
Authorities in Yen Thanh District have said they will inspect all stone quarries in the district and suspend those found violating regulations.
Women in greater danger
Le Quang Huy, an official with the Nghe An Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said the Chin Men Company had sold its rights to mine the Co Mountainside stone quarry to some individuals who were ineligible and do not have professional knowledge of stone mining.
In mid-March, the company was fined VND4 million ($192) for violating safety regulations and not signing contracts with the workers.
Huy said provincial authorities have granted mining licenses to more than 50 stone quarries in Nghe An; however, surveillance has been lax due to a paucity of personnel, he said.
A worker from the nearby Thanh Hoa Province, where there are around 300 firms operating in the field, said his job was to set explosives into stone walls.
"The job is dangerous and you don't know when you will die. But we have to make a living and accept it," he said, adding that he often had to hang on to a rope on the stone walls for around eight hours every day.
However, he said work at the quarry was more dangerous for women, who usually loaded stones at the bottom. In the April 1 accident, among the 18 dead were 13 women who were loading stones at the site.
Pham Trung Thong, chief inspector for labor safety at the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, said that the government has issued necessary regulations to ensure safety at stone quarries. However, these were not strictly implemented, he added.
According to a report released by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, there were 5,125 accidents at work last year in the country, killing 601 people and seriously injured 1,260.
Mining topped the list of workplace accidents, followed by construction, manual labor and metal works.
One major safety violation by employers is that they do not conduct labor safety training courses, while many workers ignored safety regulations at work, the report said.
The state has failed to issue implementing instructions after issuing regulations, which makes it difficult to enforce, and the stipulated punishments are not commensurate with the nature violations.
The report estimated that in 2010, total expenses relating to labor accidents (for treatment, burial etc.) was more than VND133 billion ($6.38 million).
"Labor safety [in stone mining] is threatening to reach red alert levels," he said.
Random licensing and poor surveillance have led to several accidents, said Nguyen Van Thuan, director of the Department of Geology and Minerals under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Mining licenses were issued by provincial authorities, he said.
"I think that under such loose management, terrible accidents like the one at Co Mountainside will happen again."
On April 5, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered central and provincial authorities to review mining activities for construction materials nationwide. All mines found with violations must be suspended, a government website statement said.
Responding to a Thanh Nien Weekly query about compensation for the workers, Phan Cong Chin, director of the Chin Men Company that was licensed to operate the quarry, said they would try their best to offer compensation.
The company has so far given VND9 million ($432) each to surviving relatives of the dead.
Lawyer Nguyen Minh Thuan of the Saigon Vietnam Law Company in HCMC told Thanh Nien Weekly that the law requires the employer to offer compensation to families of workers killed in accidents.
"In case their demand for compensation is rejected, the affected people can file a lawsuit against the employer," he said.
Thuan said that compensation includes expenses for treatment of the victims before their death, their funeral and for supporting the people who were dependant on the deceased. Besides this, relatives of the dead can also demand compensation for "consequential damages" (loss of the sole earning member's salary, for instance) but only for a maximum of 60 months of the basic salary fixed by the government.
The basic monthly salary is currently set at VND730,000 ($35) and will be increased to VND830,000 ($39.8) from May. Under the new rate, compensation based on 60 months of the basic salary would amount to just VND49.8 million ($2,390).
Asked if he would demand compensation from the company for his wife's death in the Co Mountainside accident, Phuong said he was too sad to think about such things, but he was also not sure if the company would agree to pay.
"We are expecting support from the government and philanthropists. I don't know what would happen if I demand compensation," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.
Many relatives of dead workers and those who were lucky to escape injury and death in the accident said they would return to the mine to work again if it resumed operations. Some others said they might migrate to southern cities seeking new jobs.