Ukraine government cover-up puts miners’ lives on the line


Last year 161 Ukrainian coal miners died in workplace accidents.

In 2010, there were 131 mining fatalities. During the first eight months of 2012 at least 82 miners were killed.

With annual coal production at about 80 million tons, to put it another way, every million ton of coal costs the lives of two miners.

The Ukrainian mining industry is based predominantly on coal, being home to the seventh largest coal reserves in the world.

However, neglected safety regulations, outdated equipment and low safety standards make the country one of the world’s most dangerous for miners.

On 29 July 2011, in one of the country’s biggest accidents, 28 miners died in an underground explosion at the Suchodilska-Shidna mine in the Lugansk region, 80km southeast of the capital Kiev.

The accident occurred at a depth of 915 metres while miners were working the night shift and it was apparently caused by a powerful explosion of methane.

However, the Ukrainian government has refused to investigate the causes properly.

A thorough investigation would prevent new tragedies from taking place, but one of the main changes in the protection of labour in Ukraine over the past two years has been the removal of union miners from accident investigations.

The investigation into the Lugansk accident should have proceeded in accordance with a Cabinet directive that states: "(a) special investigation of group accident, during which 5 or more people died or more than 10 people injured, is conducted by a special commission," whose composition includes, inter alia, "the head of the branch or territorial trade unions, representatives of the primary trade union organizations whose members are victims, or authorized by employees persons on health questions, if the victims are not union members."

Seven of the 28 miners who died at Suchodilska-Shidna were members of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (NPGU). However, neither NPGU head Mykhailo Volynets nor any representatives of the local union were invited to take part in the inquiry.

The NPGU appealed to the District Administrative Court of Kiev and in October 2011 the Court declared the Government Commission illegal. However, rather than admit its mistake, the Government appealed the petition.

In May 2012 the Court rejected the appeal, recognising that the investigation was outside the powers of the Commission. In other words, because no real commission had been created, no real investigation had taken place.


Implications for future

The inclusion of trade union representatives in any commission investigating the cause of an accident ensures a thorough and objective inquiry.

When government representatives go to a mine and ask questions to employees, miners are often afraid to reveal everything they know for fear of being fired if they say the wrong thing, or losing their jobs if the mine closes as a result of the inquiry.

The miners who witnessed the explosion at Suchodilska-Shidna are afraid that they, or even their dead colleagues, will be blamed for the accident. In a conversation with their union representative, however, miners can be much more outspoken, sharing details which can be invaluable to the investigation.

In addition, trade union representatives themselves could be considered specialists in industrial matters, as well as in matters of safety; therefore their opinion would be relevant to any investigation.

Finally, when the commission investigating the causes of an accident includes representatives of trade unions, this compels employers to pay more attention to safety rules, thus helping to improve working conditions and prevent accidents.


Politics: business as usual

In modern Ukraine the interests of the government and big business usually coincide, particularly when employers belong to the ruling party – the Party of Regions.

And particularly in the mining industry, which has become a major driver of the national economy in recent years, accounting for 4.4 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

This industry is estimated to be worth more than US$ 5.0 billion, with a total mineral production volume of more than 170 million tons, which is estimated to grow to 200 million tons by 2015, largely due to increased coal production.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov (who created the government commission) is chairman of the Party of Regions.

The head of the Suchodilska-Shidna Commission (who was appointed by Azarov) was the Minister of Energy and Coal Industry, Yuriy Boiko.

Boiko is also a member of the supreme governing body of the Party of Regions, and before his appointment as minister, he was chairman of the supreme governing body of the Federation of Employers of Ukraine.

And then there is Rinat Akhmetov, owner of the Suchodilska-Shidna mine and Ukraine’s richest businessman. He is also a Member of Parliament for the Party of Regions.

Since representatives of the NPGU were not allowed to take part in the Committee, NPGU members have little confidence that inconvenient facts were not concealed to protect the owner and the government.

It’s also worth mentioning that Volynets is an opposition MP from Yulia Tymoshenko’s All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” party. Therefore, it is likely that NPGU’s exclusion from the investigating commission was a political decision.

If political plays are depriving miners the right to information about crucial safety matters, it is not only a significant blow to the union and its members, but also to the social partnership, social dialogue and social peace in Ukraine.