A False Dominance The F60 bridge used to serve a coal mine in the region of Lusatia. The mine is shut down and today people put on helmets to walk on it just as tourists. For the past 30 years the number of jobs in the mining sector has dropped off from 70 000 to 6 000. Photo: Velina Barova / BlueLink Stories

A False Dominance

Erhard Lеhmann looks proud talking about his granddaughter. Only 11 years old and yet quite firm about her choice to never follow in his footsteps and work in the coal industry. In their home village of Proschim, Eastern Germany, coal carries burning hot conflicts between locals. The question of a coal-free future divides people in other spots as well where mining provides employment for people. The issue of a sustainable future seems to come down to a stunningly simple conflict – environment or jobs. And yet, at the sunset of the coal era, there are professional opportunities outside the mining industry, experts believe.

For the past century, the region around Proschim, in the Southern part of the State of Brandenburg, has developed as a lignite mining area, taking part in the fate of thousands of people – taking from some, giving to others. The enlargement of mines over the years led to the demolishment of more than 130 villages and relocation of their residents but has also ensured the livelihoods of many local families.

Apart from that, the energy sector is also a cause for a large share of climate-damaging emissions. With the German goal of reducing emissions by at least 40% by 2020 and 80% to 95% by 2050 (both compared to the 1990 rate), energy systems need to be restructured in order to reduce climate-damaging emissions, according to information on German climate policy on the COP23 website.

With more than twenty years of experience working as an electrician for a huge coal company, Erhard Lеhmann is a strong opposer of lignite mining. He passionately says that his oldest granddaughter has always participated in local protests against the demolishment of Proschim due to a mine enlargement. “It is not just about the fate of the village itself, but the future of the whole planet and Germany’s responsibility to deal with climate change”, says Lеhmann, explaining his reasons to stand against coal.

Employment in Lignite Mining 1990–2014. Graphics: Öko-Institut (2017) in “A Future for Lusatia. A Structural Change Plan for the Lusatia Coal-Mining Region” report by Agora Energiewende

Lehmann started his career in the sector in the 1970s in the then-named German Democratic Republic. In 1995, the mine was shut down, and he was one of many who were fired and left without any money or a plan. Back in 1989, in Brandenburg alone about 70,000 people were directly employed in the lignite industry. Almost 30 years later, the number has dropped to 6,000. Everybody in the region knows someone who lost their job at that time, and there is plenty of sorrow looking into the future, says Heide Schinowsky, a member of the State Parliament from the Green party.

In January 2018, around 24,000 or 7.6% of people in the area of Cottbus in Brandenburg are unemployed, shows data provided by the German Federal Employment Agency. The rate is over 1% lower than the previous year.

Heide Schinowsky says that despite the significant drop of jobs, the lignite industry is still one of the most important employers in the region, accounting for about 15% of all jobs in the state of Brandenburg. According to the Federal Employment Agency, people “enjoy” working in the coal industry because they get good pay there. The coal industry has not hired new employees for years but takes over young professionals after training into  permanent employment, information says.

People don’t understand how shutting down mines and power plants would be any good for them, says Heide Schinowsky, a member of the parliament from the Green party. Photo: Velina Barova / BlueLink Stories

And yet the world is already looking forward to a future beyond coal. Among the goals of the German Green party is to “get out of the climate-damaging coal”. The Greens aim to “take the 20 dirtiest coal-fired power plants off the grid and cap the CO2 emissions of the remaining coal-fired power plants in line with the climate targets”, as stated on their website.

Heide Schinowsky tries to build bridges to local people explaining the common responsibility for climate change and the goals Germany that needs to meet regarding its greenhouse gas emissions. However, people don’t understand how shutting down mines and power plants would be any good for them, Schinowsky says.

A 26-year-old apprentice at LEAG – the only energy company operating lignite mines and power plants in Brandenburg and Saxony – feels quite satisfied with his present income, describing it as “quite good” related to what young people earn in other sectors, leading them to move to Western or Southern Germany.

According to this apprentice, the lignite industry still attracts new employees, but the “mixed signals” coming from politicians makes people wary of the sector as they don’t know what might happen in five or ten years. “If you start now, when you are at an apprenticeship, when you are learning, and this phase is over and they shut it down, then you are pretty lost.”

It is not just about the fate of the village itself, but the future of the whole planet.

A statement from the Trade Union for mining, chemicals and energy industries (IG BCE) for BlueLink Stories says “the IG BCE stands behind the Paris climate accord”. According to the Union, the way there presupposes realistic and sustainable policies, and the main priorities of the energy revolution must be the expansion of efficient power grids and the development of modern power stores, as they are essential requirements for the further expansion of renewable energies. “Whoever wants to force an additional and accelerated exit from coal and other fossil energy sources risks a reliable power supply — and recklessly jeopardises the future of decent work in the industry”, the IG BCE statement concludes.

With more than twenty years of experience working as an electrician for a huge coal company, Erhard Lеhmann is a strong opposer of lignite mining. Photo: Velina Barova / BlueLink Stories

“The world is calling for a stop of coal mining and people have to understand that”, points out Erhard Lеhmann. According to him, if somebody wants to work, there are also options outside of coal. Both his sons are not in the industry — one is constructing houses, and the other one has a small enterprise of his own. He confirms that other wages in the region are not as high as in the mines, but there are still options — agriculture, tourism and small enterprises.

“I think the most important thing is to develop new chances here, business sites and science in university. If you have this, then you can work with the younger people and say, ‘Stay here, there’s something to do’”, says Heide Schinowsky.

According to her, the big problem with employment opportunities in a post-coal world is that there is not one answer to the challenge of alternative opportunities. She sees universities and tourism as a part of many possible solutions, also pointing out the possibility for the creation of a regional brand for organic agricultural products.

When it comes to the next opportunity for ex-mining employees, Schinowsky comments that planning is key. Many of the employees of LEAG are around 50 years old or older, “so it is very important to agree on a schedule on the time to close the last power plant, so you don’t have to think about older employees’ next jobs”.  

However, the question of employment opportunities outside of the coal industry is not a current issue, as there are no redundancies in the coal industry, the Federal Employment Agency reports. The reduction in the number of employees is based exclusively on retirement, and there are presently 5,700 job vacancies in the region with the trend steadily rising. There is primarily a need for professionals in sales and gastronomy, drivers, geriatric nurses, care workers for the elderly, security personnel and call centres, heating installers, electricians and automotive technicians. However, applicants and jobs often do not match, and vacancies are left unoccupied for a long time.

Information by the Federal Employment Agency says that up to now there is no national strategy for the employment of people in the region after the coal industry, but that is currently a big topic. “The state governments of Brandenburg and Saxony are working with the federal government for such a plan and sufficient financial means to shape the structural change.”

IG BCE emphasises that it is important to develop a concept for structural change. “We demand an industrial job for every single person who is going to lose his or her job in the affected region. The strategic groundwork for this shift must be laid right now.”

Erhard Lеhmann knows LEAG tries to attract young people as employees but is more than sure that one 11-year-old girl will someday choose another path and become a veterinary doctor. With his granddaughter holds a sign saying “Welcome to Proschim” during one of the many demonstrations in the past few years, Lеhmann hopes for just that — for the village to keep being as it is and finally take some rest.

More BlueLink stories about coal mining 

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