Friday, December 22, 2017

Coal Miners' Strike Spreads In Kazakhstan As Workers Stay Underground

From: RFE/RL

SHAKHTINSK, Kazakhstan -- A strike by coal miners in north-central Kazakhstan has spread to more mines as hundreds of workers are refusing to return to the surface, demanding higher salaries and better benefits.

Kazakh Labor Minister Tamara Duisenova told reporters on December 12 that 684 miners at eight different mines have spent two nights underground in coal mines in the town of Shakhtinsk, in the Qaraghandy region.

Regional officials had said earlier that a much lower number of miners, up to 200, had stayed underground at four coal mines in Shakhtinsk.

Duisenova said the miners, who work for ArcelorMittal Temirtau, are demanding that their wages be doubled and that they be allowed to retire at the age of 50.

They are also calling for improved health-care coverage, upgraded equipment and safety measures, as well as improvements to the infrastructure of Shakhtinsk.

Duisenova said some 32 worker representatives are negotiating with mine officials to resolve the issue.

Spouses Lend Support

Miners who are above ground are supporting those who refuse to leave the mine, supplying them with food and water. Many spouses and other relatives are also at the mines bringing clothes and other items to the striking miners.

"We want to support our men...they say they are determined to [strike] until the end, until they come to a compromise," said Svetlana Yerzhumanova.

Miner Sergei Galister told RFE/RL that "people set a goal and they want to achieve it. The guys in the mine said they will not leave until there is a resolution."

"The demands of our colleagues and all who are present at the mine, we support completely," Vladimir Khaniev, an employee of the striking Lenin mine, told RFE/RL.

ArcelorMittal Temirtau officials told RFE/RL that new contracts are being drafted to reflect the miners’ main demand -- a 100 percent increase in their salaries.

Duisenova said the salary for a mine worker above ground is about 208,000 tenge per month ($621) and about 326,000 tenge ($973) for a miner who extracts the coal.

The company -- a branch of global metals giant ArcelorMittal, which is owned by Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal -- said in September that it was negotiating a new collective agreement with steelworker and miner unions and planned to sign it before the end of the year.

ArcelorMittal Temirtau operates eight coal mines and four iron-ore mines in resource-rich Kazakhstan and operates a metallurgical plant in Temirtau. It produced about 4 million tons of steel in Kazakhstan in 2016.

Last month, copper miners near the Kazakh city of Zhezqazghan in the same region also refused to come out of their mine, demanding salary increases and better benefits.

They only ended their strike after their employer, KazakhMys, agreed to some of their demands.

From: The Diplomat

Hundreds of miners in central Kazakhstan have gone on strike against worsening work conditions and overdue back salaries, sparking cries of solidarity from across the country, including opposition members and human rights activists.

The miners chose a typical and powerful form of protest, recently employed by Chilean miners, as they refused to return to the surface after their shift ended, obstructing the regular flow of labor and production at the mines. Simultaneous action took place in four mines owned by ArcelorMittal Temirtau (AMT), a subsidiary of Luxembourg-registered steel giant ArcelorMittal, all located in the central Karaganda region. In the following days, the strike expanded to all eight mines controlled by AMT.

According to Labor Minister Tamara Duisenova, 684 miners participated in the first two nights of the strike on December 11-12. The Karaganda region’s press service said that the intervention of Yerlan Koshanov, the region’s governor since March, persuaded 154 of them to climb back to the surface on December 13. Activists on social media, however, denied the claim. According to ongoing reports, striking miners were offered an immediate 30 percent raise in salary, after submitting an original request for a two-fold increase, better conditions and a more favorable track to retirement. The worker representatives split from the Korgau unionthat had negotiated the deal and refused the company’s offer.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Wives and relatives of the miners approached the sites to provide warm clothing and food. On social media, messages of solidarity arrived from all corners of the world.

A handful of political figures chimed in to mitigate the tensions.

“Emotions shouldn’t play a role here. The company, trade unions, and workers will reach a solution through dialogue,” Nurlan Nigmatullin, chairman of Kazakhstan’s parliament, told the press.

“While we, as deputies, have to minimize the risk of doing business in the country, in this case we have to side with our working citizens and protect their rights and interests,” Nurtai Sabilyanov, a majority member of the parliament, told reporters.

Importantly, however, some of the most important political figures in the countries preferred not to comment. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who climbed the ranks of the Soviet Communist Party while working in the steel plant in Temirtau, is aware of the situation, according to his daughter Dariga, a senator.

“The president has been briefed on the situation, just like with everything else going on in the country. I’m sure he is watching closely the events in the Karaganda region, one that is very dear to him,” Nazarbayeva said.

In a turn of events, AMT decided to pursue legal means against the striking miners and their unions. The company deemed their strike illegal and filed a lawsuit in a local court on December 14. The decision came hours after Paramjit Kahlon, head of the company, sent a letter to the striking workers asking them to consider halting the strike and join talks with the government and the management. The court rapidly called the strike “threatening for human life” and ordered the workers to climb back to the surface.

The strike at AMT mines came less than two weeks after another industrial action in the nearby mining town of Zhezkazgan, where around 300 workers refused to resurface at a copper mine owned by Kazakhmys, a “sister” company of London-listed KAZ Minerals. The two-day strike resulted in the company bowing to the workers’ requests.

Precarious contract and working conditions over the past few years have contributed to stirring up tensions. In mid-2014, AMT slashed 1,000 jobs from its steel plant in Temirtau. In 2015 the company moved to cut worker salaries by 25 percent, but was stopped by the regulator. After promising a pay increase to match inflation and currency devaluation at the end of 2015, the company canceled a scheduled raise in February 2016. Three miners died in November 2016 at the company’s Saranskaya mine after a monorail accident and three more died in August 2017 due to a methane leak that provoked a mass evacuation from the Kazakhstan mine.

Political analyst Dosym Satpayev tweeted that the authorities had forgotten the “lessons of Zhanaozen,” the 2011 clash between workers and police in an oil town in the west of the country, in which at least 15 workers were killed. As the anniversary of the clash nears, the echoes of Zhanaozen grow stronger in Kazakhstan. The new strike could be another opportunity for the authorities to change their political approach to industrial action and offer more opportunities for dialogue between workers and companies. While the latest Labor Code went in the opposite direction, de facto eliminating independent trade unions, the course could easily be reversed.

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