Cursed by Coal
Harsh labour conditions, social uncertainty, a polluted environment and oligarchic ownership dominate coal mining in Bulgaria. Despite the promises to overcome climate change and to gradually withdraw from coal, the state still offers no alternatives to regions that have always relied on coal mining to make a living.
“To this day there is a neighbourhood called Everest in which two blocks are empty, no one lives in them. The same will happen to another two to three blocks there. Only houses are somewhat occupied. If factories will not be invested in…”
So my conversation with Peter trailed off into uncertainty. He had been working in the well-known “Babino” mine in Bobov Dol until the end of last year when he was dismissed. After countless delays, he is still waiting to receive all of his wages and food vouchers.
He sounds neither angry nor desperate. Peter is fully aware of his reality – he is now looking for another job that will most likely be outside of the mining town. He is not denying the possibility of having to change both his field of work and place of residence.
Peter’s situation is disturbingly familiar to many in Bobov Dol. The hard life of miners is regularly chronicled in the news. Occasionally, the public is made aware of the fact that people do not receive their salaries for months or that they are forced to vote for whomever management tells them to.
At the end of 2016 more than 100 miners from Babino pit of Bobov Dol mine held a three-day strike underground insisting on immediate payment of their salaries, which delayed for several months. This case made it clear that “Babino” and other mines in the town were unprofitable and that the management was planning their gradual liquidation.
Progenitor miners such as the 35-year-old Peter, who had spent all of his 15 years of working “underground”, also face the challenge of progress. At the beginning of the 21st century, the world was trying to limit the use of solid fuels, at least on paper; and solid fuels were the main means of employment in Bobov Dol.
As part of the key Paris agreement and subsequent confirmation agreements, Bulgaria has also committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to gradually withdraw from coal. Apart from that, environmentalists are concerned about dust pollution from thermal power plants and mines as well as about the harmful effect mining has on the environment.
However, the current National Strategy for the Development of the Mining Industry, adopted in mid-2015, defines the sector as “important” and aims to make it “one of the main drivers of economic development by increasing the consumption of raw materials from the domestic market and producing products with a high value added.” by 2030.
Peter and his colleagues find themselves trapped between the oligarchic property of the mines, climate change and the government, whose pledges at international and local levels contradict each other completely.
The ecological requirements and the state conditions for the acquisition of electricity from coal-fired power plants make yield and production unprofitable in traditional settlements such as Bobov Dol and Galabovo. At the same time, the institutions not only have no plans for the miners, but they also enable “investor” high handedness.
“We need to start reducing production that is harmful, expensive and energy-intensive. Harmful to both the environment and the health of the workers. We do not want to shut down the mines soon, but there should be a plan for the gradual closure of coal mines and coal-fired power stations and to take measures for alternative employment and retraining”, Todor Todorov from “For the Earth” told Evromegdan.
In recent years, the organisation has been trying to raise the issue of the need for a state policy to gradual reduce coal mining and create alternative opportunities for workers in the sector. At present, however, no such measures have been adopted by the institutions.
“The Social Ministry and Labour Offices take action only when the crisis is already present. They never take any preventive measures, although this topic is a matter of agreement among them”, said Valentin Valchev, Chairman of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Miners of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (FITUM-CITUB).
“A serious shortcoming of politicians here is the lack of a horizon beyond the next elections, which is a big problem in sectors like energy”, Todor Todorov says.
Confirmation of their words is clear in the behaviour of institutions during crisis situations and the vague political relations in the sector.
Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has responded to the mining strike in Bobov Dol by promising to bring the concession contract to light and to terminate it if the management company does not pay its workers. However, this reaction seems to be too late – the concession fee has not been paid over the past five years due to low yields, and in 2014 the NSSI has deferred BGN 41 million contributions of “Mini Bobov Dol” to the National Revenue Agency for social insurances, leaving miners at risk in any time of need.
The delay of decisive action against the private enterprise, related to businessman and owner of Bobov Dol, Hristo Kovachki, led to a one-time aid of BGN 325 for a dismissed miner provided from funds from the state budget. So, as taxpayers, miners support the unprofitable businesses of their employer, widely known for their use of offshore companies and suspected tax evasion.
The Bulgarian Democratic Party, whose co-chair is Kovachki`s wife, is also considered to be a close ally. After the decay of the MEP Nicolai Barrekov`s “Bulgaria without Censorship” coalition, the BDC (Bulgarian Democratic Center) parliamentary group supported key policies of the ruling Borisov`s “GERB” party. Kovachki was considered to be close to the former BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party) and MRF (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) management. Before the 2014 European elections it became clear that miners in Bobov Dol were forced to vote for BSP unless they wanted their food vouchers to become unusable in the town supermarkets. It was after these elections that the institutions deferred the contributions of the enterprise to the NRA.
The pre-announced death of the mining sector has been postponed by political shuffles, including compromises on environmental requirements. Meanwhile, the miners continue to linger in the status of serfs with a vague present and an even more uncertain future.
Some miners are turning to construction work or are trying to find work in other mines until they reach the required retirement age. Given the health risks involved in mining, the profession is a first-category job, which means that miners can retire after the age of 55. If a miner has at least 10 years of internship and has been dismissed, he can retire at 45 if he stops working right away.
FITUM-CITUB helps workers from closed mines find a place in mines that are still open so that they can reach the required age. However, the pension lifebelt is not available for Peter, who has at least another 10 years before he can stop working. The lack of prospects is both a unifying and separating moment in the opinion of environmentalists, trade unions and miners themselves.
Looking at “the world after coal”, “For the Earth” is trying to direct coal miners to other options – owning their own business, working in other spheres, etc. According to Todor Todorov, miners are well aware that there is no future in their industry, but they do not currently have the necessary abilities nor the mindset to seek out alternatives.
“For the Earth” highlights models from countries like Germany and Denmark, where workers in mines are shifting to areas such as construction and agriculture. With or without a state program, this is currently happening in places like Bobov Dol and Galabovo but at the cost of forced labour migration.
While continuing to seek dialogue with workers, environmentalists also insist on working with trade unions and institutions. However, these latter do not embrace the notion of a “world without coal”.
“Our Federation strives to preserve lucrative and economically profitable coal mining in the first place. We do not refer to the retention of loss-making businesses. However, we do not overlook one of the few remaining mines that produce calorific coal”, Valchev summarises as the position of FITUM -CITUB. According to the federation, open coal mining may last for another 15 years, with thermoelectric power plants starting to keep environmental standards that have been so far neglected.
Workers like Peter also do not look beyond the mines. “The fact that I have worked as a miner for 15 years means that I respect the job”, he says.
“People in the region love mining and are attached to the mines. Their fathers and grandparents have been miners, and such traditions cannot fail to trigger emotions when mines are being closed”, said Evgeni Nikitin from the alternative Autonomous Workers’ Trade Union (AWTU).
Workers like Peter also do not look beyond the mines. “The fact that I have worked as a miner for 15 years means that I respect the job”, he says. “People in the region love mining and are attached to the mines. Their fathers and grandparents have been miners, and such traditions cannot fail to trigger emotions when mines are being closed”, said Evgeni Nikitin from the alternative Autonomous Workers’ Trade Union (AWTU).
According to the AWTU, workers should not pay the social cost in the event of a possible cessation of mining for environmental reasons.
“The activity of mines can be changed and directed to a completely different field, which is both promising and ecological. We know about the Romanian mines that were converted to profitable tourist attractions. In fact, there are many unexplored opportunities that can save the jobs of many people and revive the whole region”, added Nikitin.
* Name was changed
This article was originally published in Bulgarian under the title “Coal Obscurity” and was translated by Nadezhda Ivanova/Group for Active Translations.
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