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Kazakstan: Hunger Strike Claims Life

A group of disabled former mine workers urge courts to help them recoup several years’ worth of unpaid benefits.
By Gaziza Baituova

Several former miners suffering from chronic industrial disease are staging a hunger strike in protest at the Kazak supreme court’s refusal to re-open their case.


Protester Gennady Rozanov, 49, died on January 28, three days after 40 members of the more than 200-strong Jambyl region group - mostly former workers at the Karatau phosphorous plant - began their hunger strike.


The group claims that more than three million US dollars in unpaid disability payments are owed to them and allege that they were tricked into accepting “liquid assets” in lieu of payment only to discover that they had been given worthless granulated slag.


Group spokesperson Nadezdha Sycheva said, “Our numerous requests for help have been ignored.


“We went through all legal channels from district to supreme court…We started a hunger strike out of sheer despair.”


The dead man’s wife, Galina Rozanov, told IWPR that her husband had worked at the Karatau Molodyozhny mine for two decades and was owed more than 16,000 dollars at the time of his death.


“My husband contracted chronic silicosis at the mine and had difficulty breathing and often lost consciousness,” she said.


“There was absolutely no chance for Gennady to have the necessary treatment for his condition. He did not take any medicine at all, because we could not afford it.”


More than 200 former Karatau employees have been trying to secure an estimated three million dollars in disability payments owed to them since the end of 1998, and have staged a series of protests and hunger strikes to draw attention to their plight.


All fell ill during their years in the phosphorus plants and were certified as eligible to receive disability payments until the age of 75.


Silicosis is a serious respiratory disease contracted from long-term exposure to silica dust, usually through working in the mining industry. Its symptoms include chronic coughing and severe breathing difficulties. As many sufferers had to stop work through ill health long before retirement age, the disability payments were often their only source of income.


Former worker Sanat Jumagulov, 45, told IWPR, “I live in a shanty house and my two children cannot attend school as they do not have any warm clothes let alone books and jotters.”


During Soviet times, the Karatau plant was one of many forming a mighty chemical industry in the south of this huge country. However, when Kazakstan gained its independence with the collapse of the communism in 1991, the government - unable to provide the financial and technical support that used to come from Moscow - handed control of the companies from one investor to another.


Arrears soon mounted up with no guarantee that they would ever be paid.


The Karatau workers faced a further blow in September 1997 when the company was merged with several others to form the joint stock company Kazfosfor, which was under government supervision.


This new body took control of the profitable mine-enriching department - eventually passing the management of the business on to the Indian firm Texuna Chemicals Inc – while declaring the money-losing production side bankrupt and putting it up for sale to pay creditors. This arrangement specified that all disability payments should be made from the proceeds of this sale.


However, the protesters claim that the official who was appointed by the government to carry out the transaction and distribute the proceeds to the creditors – and those waiting for their disability payments – offered them an alternative.


Instead of waiting an unspecified time to receive cash payments from the sale, the disabled group was offered “liquid assets” instead. Encouraged by the news that they could then sell this and stand a better chance of recouping the money owed to them, the protesters agreed.


However, these liquid assets turned out to be granulated slag – a low-value by-product of the mining industry, which can be used to make cement and roofing.


The protesters now claim that had they known they would be given granulated slag in lieu of cash, they would have refused the deal.


In a written complaint filed with the government and courts, the group alleges, “[The manager] deceived us. At his request we filled out statements agreeing to accept liquid property instead of money for the sum owed to us.


“At the time, he categorically refused to provide us with a list of the property … he gave us granulated slag and reported to all appropriate channels that he had completely paid off the workers.”


Former worker Valentina Grekova expressed her disgust over the deal. “This so-called granulated slag is actually poisonous phosphorous,” she claimed. “Nobody is needed to guard it from thieves because who want to steal industrial rubbish?”


However, the manager appointed to carry out the transaction, Abai Suinbaev, told IWPR that his conscience was clear. “How can this slag be sold on? Well, that’s their problem!”


The authorities say they have sold much of the unprofitable side of the Kazfosfor business. The protesters say they want whatever is left to be revalued by independent auditors and put up for sale again - the proceeds of which should go towards their disability payments.


But so far the Kazak courts – and most recently the supreme court – have refused to consider the ex-miners’ request.


In the meantime, the protesters are continuing their action in spite of their infirmity and, for many, old age.


“During Soviet times I was awarded a medal for the work I did,” 74-year-old Aleksei Cherednikov told IWPR proudly.


“Now, as well as losing both legs in an accident at the plant in the Nineties, I am suffering from vibration white finger. I am still waiting for the money I am entitled to – this would not be allowed to happen in the West.”


Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR correspondent in Taraz.


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