Marcinelle mine disaster revisited by a crisis-shaken Europe

Is Europe’s integration an opportunity or a cage of rules and austerity? The recent Brexit referendum energised the long-running diatribe and exposed the difficulty pro-Europeans have in explaining the benefits of the European Union.

The 60th anniversary of Belgium’s Marcinelle mine disaster offers a comparison between then and now.

All but 12 of the 274 miners in the Bois du Cazier perished on 8 August, 1956 in the southern town of Marcinelle, after a mining wagon, incorrectly placed in an elevator cage, struck an oil pipe and electrical cables, triggering a deadly fire.

The victims had 12 different nationalities. The largest number - 136 - were Italians who had emigrated to Belgium to work in the coal industry. Therefore, a rapid description of the policy framework which affected them can help to better understand the changes produced afterwards by European integration.

Brussels and Rome represented two of the six states that started the cooperation process between western European nations after the Second World War. They signed the Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, precursor of other treaties that would later lead to the EU. Nevertheless, Italian workers had few options to enter the Belgian labour market, also considering that most of them were low-skilled.

In post-war Belgium, coal mining played a strategic role to produce energy on a large scale in order to answer domestic and international demand. However, there was a shortage of labour, also because of the disaffection by more and more Belgians for a job considered dangerous and often not well-paid.

A solution was to turn to foreign workers, including Italians coming mainly from the economically depressed region of Mezzogiorno (southern Italy).

Italy’s economic and political establishment considered a restart of emigration as an alternative solution to concrete income redistribution to lower classes. Furthermore, it was a way to reduce social tensions and the risk of a left-wing resurgence. In this situation, Rome explicitly fostered emigration.

In June 1946, Italy and Belgium signed a bilateral protocol that envisaged the employment of around 50,000 Italian workers by Belgian mines and, in return, the sale of coal to Italy. According to the document, Rome would make a special effort in order to send 2,000 workers per week to Belgium.

Different medical exams and administrative procedures to follow gave potential emigrants a hard time. The selection process was managed by institutional actors of both sides and by representatives of the Belgian coal industry.

Candidates were chosen on the basis of their health, age and social conduct. Their police records were checked, but also - in a more informal way - their political inclinations. Guest workers inspired by leftist parties were usually not welcome.

The tragedy of Marcinelle raised attention and emotion in the public opinion, also because of the coverage provided by the media. In Italy, the conditions in which many emigrants were obliged to work and live became sharply evident. Clearly, these conditions did not affect only migrants.

Furthermore, dangerous working environments and unseemly lodgings for workers represented a widespread issue across Europe. Marcinelle was not a rare case.

EU safeguards and loopholes

The present EU includes the freedom to live abroad that wasn’t a distinguishing feature of a not-so-distant past.

Article 3.2 of the consolidated version of the Treaty on European Union ensures “the free movement of persons” inside the EU. Consistent with this approach is the fact that “workers” should be free to move “within” the EU, as stated by the Article 45.1 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

The possibility to reside in another member state and to enter its job market without a work permit has a complementary aspect in a series of rules to achieve a certain level of coordination between the national social security systems.

Such coordination - as we can read on the website of the European Commission Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion - is based on “four main principles.”

These, in theory, guarantee to be “covered by the legislation of one country at a time” and to have “the same rights and obligations as the nationals of the country where you are covered”.

Furthermore, the member states “must make sure that their national” legislations safeguard “certain minimum rights” defined by “EU employment laws” and concerning “health and safety at work”, have “equal opportunities for women and men” and “protection against discrimination”, as well as a series of rules relating to “labour law”.

Certainly, the use of words like “coordination” and “minimum rights” let a licit doubt crop up when talking about the efficacy of different EU policies and precepts in fields where national authorities tend to keep a wide margin of manoeuvre.

In any case, also considering the existing limits, these “elements” contribute to provide a clearer overview of the changes produced by the integration process.

Sixty years ago, when so many people lost their lives in Marcinelle, working conditions and social security for migrants moving between two states of Europe made reference to the legislation of the immigration land and to bilateral agreements signed by the governments of the concerned countries.

A common - if imperfect - European framework of rules did not exist.

These rules now exist, notably the 1996 posted workers directive, which is currently being reviewed by the European commission. Yet, the many cases of foreign worker abuse have led to accusations of “social dumping”.

Very often, like in the 1950s, low-skilled low-paid workers bear the brunt of an imperfect European model that seems more determined to liberalise markets across the 28 member states than to effectively promote social integration.

Let’s also keep in mind the large numbers of people in Europe working informally and outside any support system.

Is today better than yesterday? Amid differing opinions, the Marcinelle anniversary provides an occasion to observe the current context by looking at the past, which constitutes an important starting point to understand later changes more concretely.

This perspective would be useful to get a sense of the transformations brought by the European integration process.