Coal miners protest in northeastern China, claiming unpaid wages

BEIJING (Reuters) - Thousands of Chinese coal miners marched through the streets of a mining town in northeastern China over the weekend protesting against unpaid wages, as China grapples with rising unemployment due to overcapacity in heavy industries.

A villager moves coal at local businessman Sun Meng's small coal depot near a coal mine of the state-owned Longmay Group on the outskirts of Jixi, in Heilongjiang province, China, October 23, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Lee

The protesters are employees at Shuangyashan Mine, owned by Longmay Group. They held up banners saying: “We want to live, we want to eat,” according to photographs posted on social media.

As China’s economy slows, the government is trying to slash overcapacity in labor-intensive industries like coal and steel but this has prompted fears the country might face its fiercest unemployment pressures since the late 1990s.

The workers claim they are owed unpaid wages and some are angry that their pay has been cut to 800 yuan ($123.19) a month, from 1000 yuan, according to local media reports.

“Thousands of people have been protesting,” an eyewitness told Reuters by phone. The witness declined to give their name for fear of reprisal from the authorities.

“The police have been taking people away,” the witness said.

A statement posted on a Heilongjiang government website on Saturday night acknowledged some employees were owed wages but did not mention the protests.

Reuters was unable to contact Longmay, local police or the Heilongjiang government on Sunday.

A rapid collapse in the prices of oil and coal, two of Heilongjiang’s major industries, and inefficiency and overmanning at state-owned enterprises have compounded problems for the province, Lu Hao, the governor of Heilongjiang, said at a session last week of China’s annual parliament.

The firm said last year that it would adopt a “wartime work atmosphere” to cut its bloated 248,000 headcount by as much as 100,000. It has been making losses since 2012.

Longmay coal miners are reemployed locally and some will be transferred to farming, Lu said, adding that local state farms have cultivated additional land, while the local forest bureau has increased forest land to provide jobs.

“It is most important that we have to train those transferred workers with new skills, create new market opportunities and encourage their willingness to run their own businesses,” Lu said.

“They have expressed their willingness to learn new skills but some are not adaptable, which requires our local governments, party and enterprises to help them to learn new skills and find new job opportunities.”

Sources have told Reuters that China is expecting to lay off 5 million to 6 million state workers over the next two to three years as part of efforts to curb industrial overcapacity and pollution.

Reporting by Sue-Lin Wong, Kathy Chen and David Stanway; Editing by Andrew Bolton