Halemba mine tragedy: the high costs of greed and outsourcing

No worker should not have gone into the mine that day. But Halemba sent in some unqualified contractors. Laure Akai reports.

Previous libcom.org coverage here.

In February of this year, Zbigniew Nowak, a 31-year old miner who checks methane levels, was trapped in Halemba mine at a depth of 1030 meters for 111 hours - nearly five days. By some miracle, he survived an explosion and was rescued alive. Since then, no coal extraction was done at the 1030 meter level in Halemba mine. The company however had over 70 million zl. (more than £12 million) worth of equipment there and sent in people to get it.

Work at that level is extremely dangerous. What's more, there had been continuing problems with methane on that and other levels in Halemba. When the methane level is over 2% and up to 17%, there is a danger of explosion and work is not allowed to be done. Miners at Halemba have claimed that they have often worked at higher levels. The day before the tragedy, the level of methane was 15%.

Now there are some irregularities that there are no entries in logs on methane levels before the accident. Some workers claim that such logs are routinely falsified anyway. 15 of the 23 miners who were killed were workers from a private firm called MARD. MARD hires both retired miners and young people, often with no experience and doubtful training.

The youngest person killed in the tragedy was 20 years old. He had only ever been in a mine four times. The oldest was 60. Miners claim that such people shouldn't be working at the 1030 meter level, especially in dangerous areas.

Why is Halemba using MARD? Who's responsible?
Halemba was joined into a group of mines in a 2000 restructuring program. 85% of shares are owned by the State Treasury and 15% by private investors. I checked the relation between the State Treasury and MARD. The mines were ordered not to hire new workers and as we know were under pressure to reduce employment. MARD was offered two contracts by the State which it won in the tender process. The criteria for winning the tender was that the contracts would go to the lowest bidder.

MARD is thus used by the state to cut labour costs. "Miners" sent in to work by MARD earn only a small fraction of what normally employed miners do. They are also not entitled to full benefits and even are not always provided proper equipment. A very experienced miner, for example a retiree, may earn 300-350 Euro a month working for MARD - which is about 40% less than his colleagues and without benefits. An inexperienced worker may receive about 200 Euro a month.

The State Treasury wants to sell parts of its shares in the mines over the next 6 years and thus are under pressure to improve financial results. The mining industry in Poland is generally in a boom period, fuelled by a high level of orders from China.