Labour activists speak out about underground miners' protest in Ukraine

Workers in Ukraine’s iron ore industry are refusing to come up from their mines, risking their wellbeing for better wages, working conditions and social benefits.

12 September 2020, 12.01am
Protesting miners at the Zhovtneva mine, Kryvyi Rih
Source: Telegram

Over the past week, miners at Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Plant have organised a series of work-to-rule actions - choosing to remain underground after their shifts have finished in protest for higher wages, the right to early retirement due to harmful working conditions, and the removal of the plant’s current management.

On 8 September, the Independent Union of Miners of Ukraine stated that up to 400 miners had refused to come up to the surface as part of the protest. Staying longer in mine workings exposes miners to risks, and some workers have reported that, as a result of increased humidity and fungus, they are already experiencing effects on their lungs and skin.

Labour activists have also reported that protesting miners are facing distinct pressure as a result of their actions. On 11 September, union head Mykhail Volynets reported that the families of two union leaders at the October mine, which is part of Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Plant, had been approached by unknown persons with threatening questions.

Miners and their relatives have held protests in the city, and workers at other enterprises have also expressed solidarity.

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Miners’ protests have become a particular feature of life in the southern Ukrainian city since 2017, when workers at the iron ore plant, the Yubileyna mine and the ArcellorMittal compex organised rallies, occupied buildings and held hunger strikes in support of pay rises.

Commons magazine, a Ukrainian left-wing journal, recently published three points of view on the current protest by labour activists involved in the campaign. We translate and present them here with permission.

Vitaly Dudin, labour activist

Once again, Kryvyi Rih is becoming an epicentre of class conflict. For six days workers have been holding an underground protest at the October mine, which is part of the Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Combine, owned by Rinat Akhmetov’s SCM group and Ihor Kolomoiskyi’s Privat group. After the end of their shift, they refused to come up from the mine, and stayed in conditions which are risky for one’s health. Every day several hundred people come to support them outside the management building. On the morning of 8 September, workers at three other mines at the combine refused to come up, as a mark of solidarity. In total, nearly 400 out of 3,750 miners involved in underground work have been involved in the protest.

The traditional slogan of raising wages to $1,000 is accompanied by new demands. The miners are angry at low wages, management’s attitude and the risk of losing state benefits given to miners [such as the right to early retirement] following a workforce attestation.

What has compelled people to make such a desperate move and risk their health? How is the current protest unique? And why is the conflict developing so quickly?

First, in 2016 the Ukrainian government began examining the list of professions which have the right to early retirement due to particularly harmful working conditions. The list of “harmful professions” was reduced to 600, although initially it included 1,500 jobs. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people lost the opportunity to retire early. For instance, mechanics - and there’s more than 1,000 of them at the Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Combine - were removed from the list of harmful professions.

Second, as a result of guillotine-style deregulation, the Ukrainian government revoked some incredibly important normative decrees on working conditions - such as permissible air temperatures, air speed and relative moisture in underground works. If a medical evaluation is not made properly, miners can lose the right to their pension benefits. And that’s in a situation where, according to research, more than 90% of iron ore workers are working in conditions influenced by a poor micro-climate. The factory administration could have ignored this issue and recognised the working conditions as harmful, but it hasn’t.

Third, workers have grounds to doubt the objectivity of the expert organisation that inspects working conditions. The company brought in to do this, Scientific Research Institute of Preventive Medicine LLC, is from Kharkiv, although previously experts from Kryvyi Rih did this work, and they understand the specifics of underground work better. Workers suspect that their employer will find it easier to come to an agreement with a non-governmental organisation from Kharkiv.

An understandable, but unjust finale is the fact that the results of the attestation have not been confirmed.

It’s important to understand that the enterprise has no economic interest in awarding retirement benefits - the employer is responsible for paying 100% of the costs to the Pension Fund of Ukraine. This is why if the attestation had not been carried out, it would be impossible to confirm people’s right to an early retirement on age grounds, as well as annual additional leave due to harmful working conditions, a lighter weekly workload, higher wages, free milk and so on.

In this situation, the miners saw an attempt to take away their usual guarantees. Theoretically, they could defend their rights in court, but they decided to opt for the collective defence of their rights.

Already on 4 September the mine administration issued a combative press release, which qualified the miners’ actions as 1) an illegal strike, 2) a criminal attempt at violating safety rules while carrying out work with an increased risk, 3) leading to material costs.

Despite promises to guarantee striking miners everything they required, company representatives started blocking access to communication and food [underground], prompting them to stop their protest.

There’s different views on tactics among workers. If independent trade unions propose collecting signatures in support of demands (the route to a legal strike), then desperate individuals are calling on people to block the unloading of iron ore.

Meanwhile, the political situation looks different. Both MPs from the Servant of the People party and the erstwhile mayor of Kryvyi Rih, from an opposition political party, are trying to draw attention to striking workers’ demands. Miners have chosen the right moment: the country’s old political forces, in the form of mayor Yuri Vilkul’s team, is faced with a crisis of legitimacy, while Volodymyr Zelensky’s new team still hasn’t secured the necessary electoral support. This is why politicians aren’t minded to move against the miners openly.

In recent days, Kryvyi Rih has looked like a single living organism: residents are proud of the miners’ actions, provide them with food, water, dry clothes, collect funds and support them at protests. There’s an idea in the air of support at workplaces and other enterprises (in particular at Evraz Sukha Balka). It’s hard to figure out these days who’s going to have the final word in this fight.


Yury Samoilov, head of the Independent Union of Miners of Ukraine

Our city supports the underground protest. There’s a constant protest outside the factory administration building. Perhaps this is what prevents the administration from repressive measures.

What’s remarkable about these protests is the noticeable participation of women. Roughly half of the people taking part are the wives of miners or mine workers themselves.

With the arrival of coronavirus, demand for iron ore hasn’t gone away, so the profits should be the same as before or even higher. For workers the risks have risen. Recently one worker at the mine died from coronavirus.

The protests for 1000 euro wages have been going on since 2017. Since then, wages have started going up gradually. But there are still people working underground who are getting 2,000-3,000 hrvynya more than the minimum wage. Only managers’ wages are going up stably. This is why the median wage in our sector is high.

The management has to be changed - instead of administering the plant, it pressures [workers].

Since I worked at the October mine, there have been no major changes there. They still don’t care about people or equipment. That mine is different because the iron ore is at a significant depth (up to 1.5 km), but management doesn’t make any technical changes to make the working conditions easier.

Signal worker, October mine

We’re optimistic. The miners have stopped being afraid when, at one of the meetings, they called the director a dummy.

This kind of protest is risky for one’s health, but still we support the decision of our colleagues who are underground. Those who are up top are very worried for them and hope that everything will end quickly.

The most difficult thing for our employers is to replace people at the main jobs. There’s a feeling that management looks down on women’s work, doesn’t value it. But women are becoming increasingly active. They won’t just do everything that they’re told, and often put up a fight against management.

The mayor [Yury Vilkul] was quite friendly to us. It’s not like how it was before. Perhaps he’s worried about losing power. But he said clearly that he won’t be interfering on behalf of either side, as our company is a private enterprise.

The fact that there’s now an election campaign does make things difficult. We were instantly accused that our protest had been organised by somebody else.

I don’t think the workers will stop and will fight to expand their power at the company. The miners have had to put up with a lot. They understand the production process and believe that they could work without management.

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