by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: SSR2000/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 3.0

CIVIL SOCIETY GROUPS held a press conference earlier this month to call for justice for miners involved in disasters that took place in 1984. This included the Taiwan Labour Front as well as the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.

The three disasters that the groups sought to call attention to took place at the Haishan and Haiyi mines in Tucheng, New Taipei, as well as the Meishan mine in Ruifang, New Taipei. Combined, the three disasters killed 270 individuals. The Haishan mine explosion killed 74 in June 1984, while a fire killed 103 at the Meishan mine weeks later in July 1984. Subsequently, 93 died after a coal dust explosion at the Haiyi mine in December 1984.

In this way, the press conference was to mark the 40th anniversary of the disasters. In spite of the deaths in 1984, none of the mines were required to be shut down for an investigation and mining continued. Between 1970 and 1985, 1,293 miners died in accidents in Taiwan. 45.7 accidents occurred each year during this period, leading to an average of 80.8 deaths per year.

Consequently, civil society groups aimed to call attention to unresolved questions of justice for these miners. Namely, the Geological Survey and Mining Management Agency of the Ministry of Economic Affairs was called on to provide a report on what took place for the families of the bereaved. To this end, the Ministry of Health and Welfare was called on to look into the medical needs of surviving miners and to care for them for the rest of their lives.

Abandoned mining facility in Ruifang, New Taipei. Fred Hsu. Photo credit: Fred Hsu/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Lastly, there were calls for an investigation into a 500 million NT donation was made to miners after the accidents as collected from members of the public Yet it is unclear how these funds were distributed, with no inquiry made into how these funds were allocated and how they were managed until 2016, following an investigation by the New Taipei city government’s Audit Department that found over 100 million NT still had not been distributed.

As such, the Control Yuan was called on to look into how these funds were distributed. Surviving miners and the families of the bereaved have reported that money seems to have been skimmed off by unscrupulous labor insurance brokers. Furthermore, surviving miners have called for urgency on the matter, as they may not be alive much longer.

As the KMT ruled as an authoritarian party during the period in which the mining accidents took place, the KMT government was criticized for disregarding the deaths of miners, and allowing the mining industry to continue unregulated during this period. Though Taiwan was no longer reliant on coal and had shifted to oil and coal mines in Taiwan were exhausted, coal was still seen as useful and so miners continued to expend their lives under conditions allowed for by the KMT government.

Indigenous Amis miners were disproportionately affected by the demolition of their homes after mines were shuttered and structures used by mining communities demolished. To this end, one notes how Indigenous traditional territories continue to be threatened by mines today, sometimes with the government claiming that modern Environmental Impact Assessments do not need to be carried out on the basis of mining permits dating back to the authoritarian period or the Japanese colonial period.

Still, to this end, newly inaugurated president Lai Ching-te was called on to take action over the issue. Lai was framed as the “most famous miner’s son in Taiwan,” seeing as Lai himself hails from the mining town of Wanli in New Taipei, and his father died when he was two in a mining accident. At the same time, one notes that Lai did not lean into his background as a miner’s son until he came under scrutiny over a family home that he inherited from his parents, perhaps indicating the comparative lack of class consciousness in Taiwan.

It is to be seen whether there will be action taken on the historical injustices that miners have faced in Taiwan, then, forty years on. It is still the case that Taiwan has not reckoned with many of the injustices that date back to developmentalist economics during the authoritarian period.

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