Mykhailo Volynets, left and Hryhoriy Dotsenko
Mykhailo Volynets, head of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, and Hryhoriy Dotsenko, Independent Mine Workers Union leader in Vuhledar, Donetsk, gave an interview on the UkrLife tv channel on 20 January.
The complete interview, in Russian, is available here: http://www.kvpu.org.ua/uk/news/6/3780/esli-pravitelstvo-ubet-shakhty-i-ehnergetiku,-to-rossiya-budet-prodavat-ugol-ukraine-po-200-dollarov,—volynec
Volynets expressed his appreciation at the outset for the opportunity to speak openly and at length about the current situation in the coal mining industry. The interview lasted an hour and a quarter. Despite his firm support for a united and independent Ukraine Volynets is increasingly denied a hearing on the oligarch and state owned media outlets because of his sharp criticisms of the government’s social, labour and energy policies.
The labour movement leaders shed light on two issues in particular: why Ukrainian government is seeking to close down the coal mines still under its control precisely at a time when there is a dire shortage of coal at electricity generating stations; and how the coal mining communities are coping with a constantly shifting front line of war fighting in the Donbas.
Below is a summary in my own words of their remarks. MB
There are 150 coal mines in Ukraine; 115 of them are on occupied territory. The Kyiv government controls only 35 mines, of which only about 20 are presently producing coal.
Last year coal per tonne mined in Ukraine cost 800-850 UAH ($65), but imported coal at 110-120$, i.e. twice as expensive.
But while the state paid for these imports, its thermal electric power stations did not pay their debts to the state mines to the tune of 850m UAH. And so the miners’ wages are in arrears, on average by 2.5 months. That is because the energy market consumers owe 4b UAH to the electricity generators. And so the electricity stations are cutting off the power to the state-owned mines, so that these mines can’t function. The cut-outs in power cause grave dangers to the miners – they are often trapped underground; air is not being pumped to them; water is not being pumped out.
The miners have a 2,000 strong rescue force of young men and women to save their fellow miners in emergency situations.
Seven hundred miners and their familie who left the DNR and LNR and resettled in the area under control of the Kyiv government have not been paid since August. Nor have they been allocated housing.
Critically, the government in its 2015 budget has not allocated any funds for preparatory mine work needed to start up mining coal in the new year. For example the Stakhanov mine with 4000 miners and 100m tons of extractable coal cannot start up production. In many mines elementary maintenance work is not being done to prevent them from flooding. As in the 1990s when the economic crisis of those times led to similar neglect, the flooding of the mines in turn led to contamination of ground water, potable sources included, flooding of residential neighborhoods and surrounding agricultural land. Methane rose with the subterranean water and permeated people’s living quarters. In Poltava alongside the fighting in Horlivka there is radioactive material rising with the groundwater that threatens to contaminate the surrounding area.
At the same time the 2015 buget has increased the income tax on miners’ pay.
There are 54000 miners left on state mines.
“I said to the deputy prime minister Kirilenko – you are claiming these are loss making mines; you have got to look at them first…..you are undermining trust in the Ukrainian authoritieies. You are taking us to a social revolt. This is dangerous in conditions of war.”
The government’s intent is clear: the 2015 budget allocates 1.2b UAH for the closure of mines, at the moment to close half of the 35 still under government control.
The miners’ leader at Yuzhnodonbasska no. 3, Vuhledar, says the mine can’t get registered even though its on Ukrainian territory, so can’t sell its coal. Because its parent company is headquartered in DNR territory. This company’s head swore allegiance to the DNR; now he threatens his mine managers everywhere not to deal with the Ukrainian government. But Ukrainian government ministers are also dragging their heels in registering the mine. So that Yuzhnodonbasska no 3 is quietly getting its coal – stacked up over 2 months to 35000t, – through to the purchasers via its nearby sister mine no. 1.
The directors and the trade union leaders at this mine were threatened by the directors of other mines who had sworn allegiance to the DNR, who said they would destroy their mine, level it if they remained loyal to the Ukrainian government.
After festive break shooting has begun again. People living in their basements. Miners did not support the separatists. Rather, they moved out of the occupied territories where hey could and rented quarters on the other side in order to be able to keep working in the mines. Others’ families stay in occupied territories while the men go and rent a room for five – seven on the other side in order to work in a mine, coming back every month or see their families. People are surviving on their last savings – “money saved for a black day, for death duties”. Crossing over the front line is difficult, with several guard posts to pass through, and documents to fill in for the Ukrainian authorities. DNR, on the other hand lets people pass both ways.
Then there is the town of Novogorod on the Ukrainian side, with 15000 population, from where 400 people are fighting in the ranks of th DNR. This town was once in the hands of rebels; the miners’ leaders were repressed. The mine director now stands for the separatist cause. Volynets was threatened by them when he insisted the mine director not play DNR tv at work.
Volynets spoke about the miners who have been threatened and beaten and disappeared, including Ivan Reznichenko whose body was fopund in a salt pit only last week with two bullets in his head and his throat cut.
DNR and LNR leaders are insisting that there be no independent miners union on their territory, That it be prevented from organising there, that there bejust one union to deal with – the Trade Union of Coal Industry of Ukraine. Recently DNR prime minister Zakharchenko held a meeting with mine managers and union leaders and decreed, with an armed soldier by his side, a reduction of miner’ annual leave from 66 to 24 days and a reduction in their pay.
Other, private mines in Donbas are not functioning because their owner – Yanukovych’s son- is blocking their operation. And Ukrainian officials do nothing.
Coal is standing in wagons in Debaltseve has not been unloaded for weeks throughout the period of a lull in fighting. Coal is being taken off by Ukrainian army, local business people, local residents.
Miners’ leaders have been demanding since the summer that the government load up coal and deliver to power stations the necessary supplies for electricity generation though the winter. But ministers said “we’ll do it once the war is over”.
At the present time Russian government is offering the Ukrainian government thermal coal at 78-80$ a tonne. But when the government has closed all the mines in Ukraine, Russia will demand $200 per tonne.
Ukraine has the same qualityy of thermal coal as that which Russia is offering, and its cheaper to buy and deliver to power stations. Much of it is in separatist controlled territory. But the point is, Volynets argues, the government is not even utilising the coal it has under its control, but rather seeking to close down these mines.
Some of the coal deficit is beng filled by Akhmetov’s DTEK mines whose coal is coming out of the occupied territories via Russia into Kharkiv oblast. Some of its coal DTEK was sending through the LNR to the crossing into Ukrainian government controlled territory at Shchastya until that route was blocked and DTEK lost money.
The Ukrainian government is also importing electricity directly from Russia during periods of peak demands. For every one degree Celsius fall below minus 25 in the eastern part of Ukraine, the government is importing 1000MW of electricity to make up its shortfall.
The government also bought three shipmentsof coal from South Africa, a deal that is now under criminal investigation. It turned out that the first two shipments were substandard coal that would not burn without drying and an adminxture of better grades of locally sourced coal.
Discussions are underway between government and LNR leaders to buy up coal from Luhanskvuhillia in the LNR via a company registered in Kyiv. This coal is needed, says Volyndet, and it should be purchased in a transparent and accountable way. But Kyiv representatives say they will not pay for coal that ends up funding the separatists, a position Volynets says simply disguises the incompetence of government officials, their inability to get payments to the mine managers and to pay the miners their wages.