Monday, May 28, 2007

Workin' in the coal mine

While reading Anna Reid's book, a few things she said struck me as relevant to my project. The first was in her chapter about the industrial town of Donetsk, located in one of the most "Russified" regions of eastern Ukraine. Reid shares with her readers a conversation she had with a coal miner named Alexey. He describes to her the shoddy construction of the mine in which he works (the pine logs meant to "hold up the walls of the tunnels" are "very expensive and we don't have enough of them"), and he is not at all embarrassed when Reid repeats to him the startling mortality rate of miners in the Donetsk region (212 men dead in mining accidents in a single year, or four lives per million tons of coal produced).

According to Reid, Alexey had once been on an exchange program to Cardiff (in Wales I think?) and was amazed by the quality of that town's mine:
"When we told them how we worked here they just couldn't believe it. We looked at everything they had - the special baths, the clothes, the equipment - and we practically burst into tears." (47)

Reid questions Alexey about his feelings toward the new Ukrainian government, and he responds by saying that he and his men don't much care who they are governed by. He says they know that Russia doesn't need them, that it already wants to close its own mines. What he does want is better pay (any pay at all, in fact, since he hadn't received wages for six weeks) and freedom to run the mine the way he wants:

"It takes six months to make any decision, because everything has to go through Kyiv. The energy ministry takes our coal at three dollars a ton, but we the producers aren't allowed to sign our own contracts, though we could sell the same coal at $20 or even $60 a ton" (48)

I gather from this exchange that Ukrainian occupational health standards are nowhere near those in the US, and that Soviet-style collectivisation practices still exist in independent Ukraine!

To me, coal mining is a very comparable occupation to "Ark building" in Chernobyl; both are risky jobs, and in both cases, unseen dangers can lead to chronic harm (namely, air born particles in the case of mining can lead to lung disease, and radiation in the case of building the Ark can lead to cancers). If occupational heath standards are not up to snuff in the Donetsk mines, I wonder what conditions are like in Chernobyl?


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