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Ukraine's Coal Mines: Dirty, Dangerous and Broke - 2002-10-02

In the last nine months a series of mine accidents in Ukraine have killed more than 200 men and injured scores more. In the Donetsk region alone, the heart of Ukraine's mining belt, three accidents in just under one month this summer killed 61 men.

Miners descend 1,400 meters for an 8-12 hour shift, to work in temperatures that often rise above 40 degrees celsius.

It's a dirty, dangerous job for little money. The highest-paid miners get about $200 a month, but even that is not guaranteed. Ukraine's miners are owed the equivalent of $200 million in back wages. A notice board at the entrance to the Kalinin mine in Donetsk says some miners are still waiting for wages owed them from 1998. Perhaps that explains why the same notice board is full of vacancies appealing for miners to work.

Igor Mikheyev, the senior trade union official at the Kalinin mine, says workers were already in low spirits before the latest spate of accidents. But he says now things are much worse, primarily because so many skilled miners have quit since the accidents.

Mr. Mikheyev said gangs that used to consist of 20 miners now consist of 10, and that means the workers have to do their own jobs plus the work of someone else. Low wages and more work, he says, equals low morale.

Mr. Mikheyev says even before the latest mining disasters, Kalinin was having trouble retaining its work force. Ten years ago, he says, 5,000 miners worked there, but now there are less than 2,000.

The workers at the Kalinin mine belong to the Trade Union of Mining Industry Workers, the largest independent trade union for the mining industry in Donetsk. It has 23,000 members and is headed by Chairman Valery Miller.

Mr. Miller told VOA the best way to improve safety at Kalinin and other mines in Ukraine is to improve government oversight of the mine. President Leonid Kuchma's government has established a commission to improve safety in the mines, but the trade union official doubts whether it will have any real impact because of the way the commission is set up.

He says as it stands now, a subordinate mine specialist reports to his chief or the director of the mine. And as Mr. Miller put it, that will not result in the introduction of any serious safety measures because he says the managers are preoccupied with production and money, and not with safety.

VOA sought a response to Mr. Miller's charges from three separate officials either serving on or linked to the commission, but all declined comment.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian prosecutor general's office, which was to brief the media on the status of its ongoing investigation into the recent major mining disasters Tuesday, postponed the news conference without explanation.

Mr. Miller says if the government is serious about protecting lives, authorities should ensure that any future safety measures are implemented and overseen by an independent state commission.

Mr. Miller also rejected suggestions that it might be better to just close Ukraine's coal mines and seek the so-called black gold from neighboring Poland.

That he said is a recipe for the immediate collapse of the economy of Donetsk and all its local infrastructure.

Since Soviet times, he continued, infrastructure of mining towns or districts has always been tied to neighboring mines. So he says when attempting to close a mine officials always face a whole host of social problems. He says practically everything, including the telephones in people's houses, is in some way connected to the mines.

He also says closing the mines would aggravate an already serious problem in Donetsk: unemployment. He says by the time a miner is 50 years old, he has generally lost his health and is not good for any type of retraining or secondary employment.

There are also many miners who, even before they reach 50, have lost their health. Anatoly Lysovoy, 41, used to work as a foreman before a serious accident in 1998 nearly cost him his life.

A father of two, Mr. Lysovoy says the accident left him with severe brain injuries that continue to plague him today. And like the families of recent mining disaster victims, Anatoly says he too was told by the government he would be compensated with a lump-sum payment. But he says the money has never come.

He does, however, receive his disability pension and now runs an underground rail car in the mines. Asked whether he ever considered leaving his job, he replied simply, "What else would I do?"

He also said he had to admit that he likes his job, tough as it is to labor in darkness up to 12 hours a day in hazardous conditions. And like many miners, Anatoly has a stark view of what constitutes a good day at work. He says, getting paid is nice. But the best day is when you come home alive.