The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 70/No. 38           October 9, 2006  
8,000 coal miners strike
in Kazakhstan for job safety
Bosses’ profit drive killed 41 miners, workers say
(lead article)
September 27—Five days after a massive explosion killed 41 coal miners in one of the deadliest mine disasters on record in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, about 2,000 coal miners and family members marched September 25 to the local government office in the industrial city of Shakhtinsk. The workers demanded improved safety conditions, new equipment, and higher wages.

The protest touched off a strike involving some 8,000 coal miners who work at the Lenin mine, where the explosion occurred, and the nearby Shakhtinskaya, Tentekskaya, and Kazakhstanskaya mines, Reuters reported.

Company and government officials tried to brush off responsibility by claiming an “unforeseeable” accident caused the fatalities. Miners and their relatives, however, said the steel company’s drive for profits and government indifference are to blame for the deaths.

The four mines are operated by the Netherlands-based steel giant Mittal. They are part of the company’s Karmet steel complex. With 61 plants in 27 countries, Mittal is the world’s largest steel producer. It is the biggest private employer in Kazakhstan, with some 55,000 workers at the Karmet complex alone.

“The protest action started yesterday morning [September 25] when 50 workers from the Lenin mine where 41 persons had been killed by a methane explosion September 20 refused to come back to the surface, while another brigade refused to go down to the mine,” Kazakhstan Today reported September 26. “During the talks the company management and the regional authorities convinced the miners to continue work in a safe sector of the mine. They were promised a commission that would address their grievances.”

Later at the demonstration, the article reported, “Grigoriy Prezent, Executive Director of the Coal Department of Mittal Steel Temirtau, and Vyavherslave Sidorov, Chairman of Korgau Trade Union, tried to talk to the strikers.”

The paper reported that Sidorov tried to dissuade the miners saying, “We have explained that we are negotiating and that we need four weeks for that.” But, the article said, “The action participants did not want to listen to the company management.”

According to the Associated Press, the miners, who are currently paid the equivalent of $350 a month, are demanding a raise to $1,000 a month. Prezent said the company was hoping to persuade the miners to return to work in exchange for the promise of a “pay review” within 10 days.

An article in the September 21 Wall Street Journal reported that Mittal paid $400 million to buy the steel complex in 1995. “The operations there crank out nearly six million metric tons of steel annually and are some of the most profitable in Mittal’s portfolio,” the article said. “The steel plant accounts for about 4% of Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product.”

Government and company officials tried to paint the Lenin mine blast as an act of nature. “These [methane gas] releases will always happen, we can’t guard against it, and very much regret it,” Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, said the day after the explosion. “But it’s impossible to foresee everything. The miners know this.”

“The safety of our workers is a priority,” the company’s chief executive officer Lakshmi Mittal said after the explosion. He claimed Mittal’s operations were safe because it had invested $240 million in the steel and mining complex. Lakshmi Mittal, whose personal fortune is listed at $25 billion, offered “up to” $55,000 to the families of each of the victims.

Nadezhda Peretyagina, 22, the widow of a 24-year-old miner killed in the blast who was not identified, spoke to AP. “It should not be repeated,” Peretyagina said. “He often said that the mines’ equipment is old and outdated,” she added, referring to her late husband. “Everything in the mines is rotten.”

“Terrible conditions: one lamp for six persons that gives light only for two hours,” a miner at the demonstration quoted anonymously told Kazakhstan Today, referring to the mine he works in.

“They give us impossible tasks only to pay us a few pennies,” another miner told the media.

While no official report on the cause of the explosion has been released, Mittal official Grigoriy Prezent said the company had shut down the ventilation system for repairs before the blast occurred.

“Some negligence took place, electricity was turned on in the mine that had not been properly aired. This might have provoked the explosion,” Prezent told reporters.

In December 2004 an explosion at another Mittal-owned mine in the region killed 23 people. Miners demonstrated repeatedly in the months after that explosion to protest company disregard for safety and proposed wage cuts and layoffs.

With a population of 15 million, Kazakhstan, located in central Asia, is a key prize in the competition among the imperialist powers for dominance over the resources and labor power of the people of the region.

While oil production accounts for about half of Kazakhstan’s export earnings, the republic also has massive mineral wealth. According to a report from the U.S. Geological Survey, Kazakhstan ranks first in the world in reserves of barite and tungsten; second in uranium, chromite, and phosphate rock; third in copper, lead, and zinc; sixth in gold; and eighth in iron ore.

On the day the miners went on strike, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister was meeting with U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, in preparation for a White House visit by the republic’s president on September 29. Kazakhstan has grown in importance to Washington, according to an article in Forbes magazine, because it “is expected to pump 3.5 million barrels of oil a day in the coming decade.”
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