As coal mines close, Silesia’s miners face an uncertain future

As coal mines close, Silesia's miners face an uncertain future

Maciej Rozmus is a miner at the Piast coal mine in Bieruń, Silesia, which is scheduled for closure in 2035.

(Hanna Jarzabek)
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In Silesia, Poland, Europe’s largest coal-mining region, mine closures are looming. The European Green Deal aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 and ultimately achieve climate neutrality by 2050. But for this energy transition to be just, the decarbonisation process must ensure the rights and livelihoods of the affected workers. In Poland, this transformation is raising both hopes and fears, and while miners understand the need for change, they also fear for their future and the future of their region.

Poland has closed two-thirds of its mines over the last 30 years, reducing the number of jobs in the sector from 300,000 to 80,000, according to miners’ unions. The impact of these closures has been uneven. While Katowice, the capital of the Silesian ‘voivodeship’ or province, is enjoying some new development, social conflicts and pockets of poverty have arisen in many other cities where mining was previously the main source of income. The closures also appear to have had little impact on greenhouse gas emissions, leaving many miners wondering to what extent simply closing mines can solve the problem without a fundamental change in Poland’s energy model.

 

Together with the mine, the Laziska steelworks is the main employer in and around the municipality of Laziska.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

The Polish economy is heavily dependent on the metallurgical industry, 74 per cent of whose energy comes from coal (domestic and imported) while only 15 per cent comes from renewable energies. Under these conditions, meeting the EU’s 2030 targets will be no easy task. And while many in Poland understand that change is necessary – the country has 36 of Europe’s 50 most smog-ridden cities, 12 of which are in Silesia – the question of how exactly to bring about this change has many scratching their heads.

A reading of history shows that the miners’ fears are well-founded: “Since 1989, no one has successfully restructured a mine,” Andrzej Chwiluk, president of the Polish Miners’ Union (KWK) at the Makoszowy mine in Zabrze, tells Equal Times. “The decision to close our mine was taken in one week. No one said: ‘Get ready guys, because in a year or two, we are going to close.’ No, they simply gave us a certificate of dismissal and that was it. It made no sense economically. We had one of the most modern mine shafts and we even won an award for the safest mine,” he says. When the Makoszowy mine was selected for closure in 2016, it employed 1,700 workers. Of these, 500 have remained to maintain and secure the shafts, and administratively manage the land and employees. This number will be reduced to 80 by 2023, the final date of closure.

 

The Makoszowy mine in Zabrze ended mining operations in 2016. Since then, it has been in a process of closure, scheduled to be completed in 2023. At present, 200 people work there.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

“It can take up to seven years to close a mine, as is the case with ours. Meanwhile, not one new job has been created here,” says Chwiluk. “We still have 200 employees. The women are in the toughest situation. After 37 years of work, since they can’t retire, they’re offered jobs as cleaners or supervisors at a petrol station. One accountant, who spent her whole life in the office, is overseeing petrol pumps in the outskirts of the city, in the middle of nowhere and even has to work night shifts. It’s not always possible to get there by public transport and most of them don’t have a car or a driving licence, never mind the money to pay for it. And it’s unlikely that their wages will be maintained. It looks like the same story will be repeated in the mines that are closing now.”

 

Andrzej Chwiluk, president of the Polish Miners’ Union KWK Makoszowy, with his grandson.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

In May 2021, after tense negotiations, the miners’ unions signed a social agreement with the government on the transformation of the hard coal mining sector, which provides for operations in individual mines to continue through 2049. The document establishes a schedule for progressive closure and a package of social benefits for the miners, including one-off severance payments. Its implementation, however, depends on the European Commission’s notification procedure and a favourable opinion is not assured. Although the request was sent at the end of February, the status of the negotiations is still unknown. One possible reason for the delay is the armed conflict in Ukraine, which has seriously jeopardised the EU’s energy policy.

The year 2049 may prove to be too late a date for the European Union. Moreover, the agreement foresees two mechanisms that may jeopardise the granting of funds for the transformation – public allocations to the sector and investments for the construction and launch of what the pact defines as “clean coal facilities”, which are used for the gasification of coal for synthesised natural gas, among other things.

 

Miners at the Piast mine in Bieruń, Silesia, working 650 metres below ground. The mine is scheduled to close in 2035.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

“The agreement gives us a guarantee that no one will lose their job and that the closure will be progressive,” explains Jerzy Demski, president of the Underground Workers’ Union at the Piast mine in Bieruń. “In 2017, the government told us that Poland needs coal, millions of investments in machinery, training, and even scholarships to attract students. Just three years later, they wanted to shut us down, practically overnight. Now we know that we have almost 30 years to plan everything. But we have to start acting, because time is running out and nothing has been done since the agreement was signed.”

According to the timetable, the Sośnica mine in Gliwice will stop mining coal in 2029. The mine currently employs 1,800 people, 800 of whom will remain by 2029 to ensure the closure process. “Some of the remaining 1,000 people will retire, but for the rest it’s a problem,” explains Paweł Klucewicz, 37, president of the KONTRA Miners’ Union at the Sośnica mine. “Now management is looking for excuses to fire people. It happened with a miner who had an accident at work and was then dismissed at the end of his sick leave. Management claimed that he had been absent for too long. And those who are fired now will not receive severance pay. Only those who leave after the closure in 2029 will receive it.”

 

Paweł Klucewicz (left), president of the KONTRA miners’ union, and Mirosław Wilk (right), member of the union at the Sośnica mine (Gliwice), pose in their official miners’ uniforms. Both have worked in the mine for over 13 years.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

“I understand it. We have to abandon coal, no problem,” adds Mirosław Wilk, a member of the KONTRA union at the Sośnica mine. “But give us something in return! Nothing new is opening here!” Wilk has been working underground for 13 years. He shares a 46-square-metre flat with his wife, who works in the processing plant at the same mine, and two children. His accommodations are a far cry from the myth of the rich miner. “The 120,000 zlotys [approximately €25,600 or US$26,800] in severance pay is enough for me to live on for a year. I’m 44 years old and I’ve spent almost all my professional life in mining. Who’s going to give me a job now? The special economic zone we have here [in Katowice], how many workers can it really absorb?”

 

Panoramic view of Katowice, the capital of the Silesian province.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

Companies in SEZ Katowice, a special economic zone, receive preferential conditions such as tax exemptions. It was established in 1996 with the aim of supporting restructuring processes and generating new employment in the region. Since then, the special economic zone has created 90,000 jobs. The mining industry currently employs 80,000 people and, according to the trade unions, one job in the mine generates four jobs in related sectors.

“There’s also no unions in the private sector, no collective bargaining agreements, no social benefits, nothing,” says Chwiluk. “Most of these contracts are rubbish; they’re for a short period of time with no guarantees of extension. When they decided to close our mine, we came up with ideas on how to use the mine’s land and infrastructure to create jobs. We proposed a waste incineration plant, a hydroelectric power station using mine water, solar farms on the unusable coal heaps, a car depot in a siding of the mine, even bottling and selling fresh water from the mine. All of these things would employ about a thousand people, but no one took these projects seriously. It just so happened that Greta Thunberg came to see us. It was by talking to her and the NGOs that I finally got the feeling that someone was listening to us.”

Participation in decision-making processes is one of the cornerstones of just transition, but in Poland it is only just beginning to be discussed. “All of the parties need to come to the table and develop a more holistic view of the whole process, which puts workers and the local community at the centre. This hasn’t been done so far but I want to believe that this time there’s more hope,” says Patryk Białas, city councillor and member of the Mining Commission of the City of Katowice.

 

The Guido Museum in Zabrze, built in a former mine, is the largest underground complex in Europe, with 10 kilometres of routes to explore. Today it employs around 100 former miners. Roman Chytry, a retired miner, is now a museum guide.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

Retraining, anther pillar of just transition, has also not proven easy. Courses are rarely organised, and when they are, they teach skills like languages, hairdressing and even floristry. “The union would be happy to participate in the organisation of retraining courses, because we know what companies need, but everything is decided at EU level. Nobody has consulted us on the subject and I have yet to see a project that would truly increase workers’ qualifications,” says Marek Klucewicz, president of the National Committee of the KONTRA Miners’ Union.

According to information provided by Sławomir Gruszka, spokesperson for the Office of the President of the Silesian voivodeship, the province has developed the Energy Project in cooperation with the Katowice special economic zone, with the aim of improving workers’ skills and increasing employment. The project targets 310 people, including miners and workers from companies related to the mining industry who are at risk of redundancy. Scheduled to begin on 1 December 2021, enrolment for the programme has yet to begin.

 

The Ziemowit mine in Ledziny, Silesia, is scheduled to close in 2037.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

“We need training and support to create jobs, but I think we also need to consider modernisation and new technologies,” says Klucewicz. “We need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases while ensuring the country’s energy independence. Given what is happening in Ukraine, we might need to reconsider things.”

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson