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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Coal as a life-buoy

13 February, 2007 - 00:00

The Day’s correspondents attended a board meeting at the Makiivvuhillia state-run coal mine, chaired by Coal Industry Minister Serhii TULUB.

Ukraine’s coal industry is becoming an area of very intense but beneficial competition, which is focused on miners. Considering the nature of this difficult and risky work, which demands not just great physical strength (I felt it when I shook the iron hand of the shaft sinkers team leader Vasyl Sydorenko), fearlessness, and adroitness but also knowledge and resourcefulness, this should be one of the highest-paid occupations in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. According to this criterion, coal miners are still low on the list of the most important occupations — at any rate, lower than steel-makers, chemical workers, and electricians.

That is why some miners quit their jobs altogether, while others leave in search of higher wages. The crucial question that miners ask recruitment managers is about salaries. As a result, mines that offer higher wages (dependent on many factors, such as seam thickness, the coal field’s reserves, technological equipment of the mine) are not only better manned, but also have better possibilities for developing and attracting fresh manpower. Conversely, the mines that cannot offer or, God forbid, can but delay paying decent wages, are virtually starved for well-skilled labor. This situation is reflected in the well-known joke: “Why are you sick?” “Because I’m poor.” “And why are you poor?” “Because I’m sick.”

Last Thursday The Day watched the leaders of the mining industry trying to break this vicious circle. Six months ago the new-old minister Serhii Tulub (now into his third term) chaired an away session of his ministry’s board in Makiivka. Everybody got a rap over the knuckles. Very familiar with coal mining and with almost every mine, the miner-turned-minister drew his colleagues a very dismal picture, saying that the state-run Makiivvuhillia was teetering over an abyss. Coal production was relentlessly dropping, as were wages, while wage arrears were on the rise. This in turn made people quit.

That day, Oct. 5, 2006, a new general manager named Stanislav Tolchin was introduced to the workforce unit. He already had a plan to revitalize the facility, get people back, and pay back wages. The session heard Tolchin and approved his plan to make better use of existing longwalls and create new ones, which would give the miners good opportunities to work. In his turn, the minister immediately instructed the board members and department heads to offer all kinds of financial and technological support to the workforce unit, which was considering ways to break the deadlock.

Now, six months later, Tulub was back in Makiivka to check if the allotted budgetary funds have been used properly. He was scheduled to hear reports from Tolchin as well as mine managers, who clearly had something to say. First of all, the past six months saw a double increase in daily output, improved tunnel driving, and new fully-mechanized longwalls already operational or “in the pipeline.” But the minister was still not satisfied. Judging by his remarks to speeches, the enterprise still has serious problems.

A few hours before the meeting, I visited Butivska Mine. Oleksii Shpak had been appointed to this office a week before to bridge the gap, so to speak. (According to our colleagues from the mine’s newspaper, he has more than 20 years’ managerial experience and is the tenth head of this mine since 2002.) The first thing he did was go to the miners, talk to the workers of all four shifts, and find out what people expected him to do and what they wanted to suggest.

He did not expect to learn anything new, something that cannot be found in reports and other documents that a new manager, who assumes responsibility for the lives and well-being of 1,500 people, has to read. He set himself a different goal: the workforce unit must see some sort of prospect again and believe that the mine will survive and develop. The current minimum task is to bring the average daily output to 10,000 tons. But tomorrow, i.e., in 2008, when two new longwalls will be operational, the output is to reach 12,000-13,000 tons.

The common feeling was that Shpak already loves this mine, which recently marked its 75th anniversary. He talks eagerly about large coal reserves and seams more than two meters thick, where it is comfortable to work (we joked that even Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych could work well here, just grazing the ceiling with his helmet). Unfortunately, the trouble with this mine is that, according to the miners, it has a very long transportation chain: a nine kilometer-long conveyer belt that carries the product from the extraction site to the skip shaft by which the coal is lifted to the surface. There was a fire here in 2000: the conveyor burned down, and since then the once prosperous mine has been on a decline. The conveyor belts were patched up, but they are still creating a bottleneck. Unless the latter is eliminated, new longwalls will not improve the situation because the extracted coal will remain underground.

Shpak knows what to do and enjoys the managerial team’s support, but the snag is that the mine needs at least 55 million hryvnias to make a breakthrough. He makes a simple calculation and says, “It would be a sin not to give us this money because the coal that we could produce in just one year would be worth at least three times that amount.” I asked if it would be practicable to raise coal prices in order to solve the miners’ problems. The manager reminded me that the coal is at the beginning of the commodity and energy chain, so this measure is very unlikely to find support.

Back at the ministerial meeting, the coal-mining “top brass” was saying almost the same things as Shpak. Everybody complained in particular about the shortage of labor in general and young people in particular. Almost everyone thanked the ministry and the minister for their assistance, which angered Tulub. It was gratifying to learn that there is a vocational lyceum in Makiivka, although there are only two groups of miners studying there now. Working in a mine is not a prestigious occupation today. Tulub also spoke about this, but instead of just stating this fact, he said he had a plan: he intends to discuss with the National Commission for Energy Regulation the possibility of redistributing the profits that electricians, steel-makers, and chemists earn by using coal. Why do subcontractors have conditions for cost-effective work, while coal miners can only dream of this and constantly have to ask for state support?


By Vitalii KNIAZHANSKY, photos by Borys KORPUSENKO, The Day