“The SBU Arrived and Promised 8 Years of Jail For Protesting”: Why Miners in Donbass Are Going on Hunger Strike

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard



It’s not the first month that Ugledar [a town in the part of the Donetsk region occupied by the UAF – ed] has gone on a silent hunger strike. Wage arrears owed to miners exceeded tens of millions [of hryvnia – ed] long ago, but some workers are “pleased” with a 50 hryvnia advance payment.

They are afraid of holding a rally there – rebels are immediately caught by the SBU, therefore non-indifferent Ukrainians rushed to the aid of the underground workers who were starving.

“Strana” communicated with the families of the miners to learn the details of the current situation.

“We have nothing to eat!”

The population of the small town of Ugledar in the Donetsk region totals no more than 14,000 people, a half of them being miners who work in the region at two state mines – “Yuzhnodonbasskaya” and “Surgaya”. As the locals say, there is a lot of work here, wagons ship coal daily. 40 tons of coal was extracted at one site in the past two months alone – but there is no money to pay the salaries of miners.

“The last time wages were paid to our mine was on December 17th – it was for October, we didn’t receive anything more. My husband is a miner, and he receives about 6,000 [hryvnia – ed]. I am sat on maternity leave with three children, every month I receive only 860 hryvnia”

said Anna to “Strana”.

Interruptions in payments started along with the military operations in the East of Ukraine. The miners tried to demand their hard-earned money first from the management. But the director of the mine turned out to be a city inhabitant, therefore it wasn’t possible to catch him at work.

“This year we went to the mayor several times and wrote letters to the Prime Minister. After our visit a little bit of money was paid in the spring, but now, again, nothing was paid. The matter is that we still have an initiative group of no more than ten people that always gathers, but generally it is the wives of miners. The others don’t go with us as they are all frightened”

reports Anna

The long period of nonpayments caused the refrigerator of the family of the miner to be almost empty, and then the journalist Vasily Apasov spoke about this story on his Facebook page. After a few hours non-indifferent Ukrainians collected some thousands [of hryvnia – ed], and then Anna was able to buy food for her family.

“In half a day about 11,000 hryvnia arrived on the bank card of the family, which completely covered the salary of the head of the family. But it also struck me that people asked to stop this process and said that it isn’t necessary to them any more. Otherwise it would be dishonest. And they transferred part of money to another family that is in the same situation”

wrote Apasov

On the last working day of the year it wasn’t possible to find the management of the mine. “Strana” was told by phone that the director is absent, and that they can’t comment on the delays with wages. And then the miner Aleksandr was told in response that the problem belongs with the ministry – like saying, it’s not the management that pays wages. Although since the summer of this year it became known that his mine refused any state subsidies, having declared its ability to independently exist.

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“I came to a labour union yesterday and said: ‘I have nothing to eat, in the mine I can’t get a miner’s lunch for myself’. In reply there is only shrugged shoulders. We know that the mine receives money, but it doesn’t share it out with us, they instead turn to bank after bank. I called the ministry and they told me that last week everything that remained was transferred. Everybody knows about this, but are afraid to speak up, and if we start striking, we will immediately be dismissed. Before Day of the Miner one of the workers provoked others to go down into the mine and to not leave until salaries are paid. There was then a 2.5 month delay. With help of the chief of the area [mine – ed] the director found out who the initiator was and fired him. Another time, when a road was blocked in protest of wage arrears, the next day an employee of the SBU came to the people and tried to use three articles [of the Criminal Code – ed] that stipulate a total of 8 years [in jail – ed] as a threat,” reported Aleksandr to “Strana”

In Ugledar there are no more than 4,000 miners whose salaries don’t exceed the 9,000 hryvnia mark. Today the debt totals 76.5 million [hryvnia – ed]. But workers are given a sweetener only occasionally, and they are exclusively scanty advance payments.

“Explain how it is possible to live without money? We wrote to the Prime Minister and to Volynts (the head of the labor union of miners) about this, and we contacted Nasalik (Minister of Energy) on Viber, but he would read and then remain silent. Sometimes an advance payment is given, somewhere around 10%, and for some it can be 1500 hryvnia, and for others it can be 800 hryvnia. 50 hryvnia arrived on the bank card, what can possibly be done with this? We live 40 km from Ugledar, this is only enough for one trip. The kids want to eat, and it is necessary to dress them. My son still walks in autumnal trainers,” said Viktor to “Strana” (his name has been changed).

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According to the head of the Independent Labour Union of Miners Mikhail Volynts, miners aren’t being paid all over country. From the 33 state mines, only 4 are conditionally making profit, including “Yuzhnodonbasskaya”.

“The mine earned money, thus it didn’t receive any state support. But it took away assets from them worth 140 million hryvnia. Plus the debt of 40 million hryvnia grows”

said Volynets to “Strana”

Miners’ strikes all over the country

The union leader is right – the events in Ugledar are only a special case of the general catastrophe with miner’s salaries in Ukraine. Thus, for example, in parallel with martial law in Ugledar, miners from Kurakhovo starve.

The last similar example happened only in the 90’s. And it started again in 2014, with the arrival of a new government.

The situation became aggravated from the summer of 2018. Back then the authorities owed miners more than one billion hryvnia. This is according to the labour unions – and the Ministry of Energy understated this figure by three times. Nevertheless, miners organised mass protest actions in Kiev.

After this the Rada allocated 1.7 billion for state subsidies for the coal industry (Poroshenko signed this law on August 17th). However, these sums didn’t salvage the situation. In the autumn coal strikes swept across the Lvov region, Volyn, Donbass, and the Krivoy Rog basin: roads were blocked, and miners refused to leave their pits. Later the Cabinet of Ministers threw half a billion [hryvnia – ed] more.

What is the cause of the debts? All 33 state mines are officially unprofitable. They can gain from the sale of coal 500 million hryvnia a month at most. But they have twofold more mine maintenance costs and wages to pay – about 1 billion hryvnia. And this is despite the fact that the wages of miners are, to put it mildly, low.

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The unprofitability of production is explained by the fact that state mines don’t extract enough coal – one mine on average produces no more than 350 tons per day. And in order for the coal enterprise to at least feed itself there is a need for three times more. The reason – the wear of the equipment. More modern private mines produce some thousands of tons per day.

Expert calculated that, systemically speaking, solving this issue requires about 7 billion hryvnia. In practice in 2019’s budget 1.6 billion has been earmarked for the coal industry.

What solution is envisaged by the authorities? By and large only one – closing state mines. Such ideas were introduced long ago, however they practically don’t start to do it through fear of a social explosion. The second option is the creeping privatisation of the state coal portfolio.

“Strana” has already said that this may be one of the reasons why state mines are underfunded – after all, then the “necessary people” will be able to buy them at a bargain price.

Concerning such “necessary people” there is talk first of all about the businessman from Torez Vitaly Kropachev, who in the media is often said to be eyeing up the coal industry from Bankova Street. And there is also the deputy from the “Bloc of Petro Poroshenko” Efimov (who last year bought some of the energy assets of the Yanukovych family).

Friendship with the right-hand man of the president Igor Kononenko became a trump card for Kropachev.

Not so long ago the “Ukrdoninvest” company belonging to him was absorbed by the joint-stock company “Krasnolimanskoye”, which is the main supplier of coal for the “Tsentrenergo” company (among the participants of its failed privatisation there was the same Kropachev).

Experts don’t exclude that it is precisely Kropachev who can also obtain other perspective coal-mining enterprises. And a further shaking of the situation in this industry will be able to even further depreciate even completely liquid assets.

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