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Kyrgyz Coalface a Dangerous Place

Government commission recommends prosecution of mine company official after recent fatal accident.
By Aziza Turdueva
They work without safety equipment, ventilation is poor and training often non-existent.



Labour rights activists in Kygyzstan paint a bleak picture of working conditions in the country’s mines where fatal accidents - which they blame on owners putting profits before workers’ safety - are commonplace.



Following the death of five miners late last year in the southern Batken region, a commission set up by the Kyrgyz government to investigate the fatalities, the consequence of a roof fall 220 metres underground, has concluded that the mining company failed to comply with safety standards and has recommended that prosecutors charge its director and chief engineer.



A subsequent commission - which includes members of local administrations and councils in mining towns as well as representatives from the ministry for emergency situations - is conducting a nationwide inspection of the country's mines to see whether they follow safety regulations.



“Firms hire unemployed people who lack safety equipment, lamps or even helmets and risk their lives as they descend into the depths to dig for coal,” said Turar Sarkulov, head of the state inspection board for industrial safety and mining at the Kyrgyz emergency ministry. “These firms do not usually spend money on technically equipping the mine as opening a new mine requires enormous expense.”



Coal mining has long been on the wane in Kyrgyzstan with only 250,000 tonnes now mined each year, compared with the Soviet era when one small mine alone produced as much as 500,000 tonnes, according to Sarkulov



Qualified miners have left the country, state run pits have fallen into disuse and private companies have moved in to take their place.



"Currently there are 92 private firms registered officially in Kyrgyzstan which mine coal, but there are dozens of private firms in the coal business which lack registration and licenses,” said Sarkulov.



Miners in the impoverished south say they have little choice but to risk their lives.



Though wages are low - between 400 and 2,000 soms per month [10- 50 US dollars] - unemployment and poverty in the region means there is no shortage of men willing to take the risk. “Around 500 people work at our mine,” said Aman Tashtanov, who works a 24-hour shift at a Sulyukta mine then rests for two days. “But there are even more people who want to work here.”



Mining company official Raikhan Bainazarova added, “I see the difficulties the miners face in their work and for tiny salaries. Miners now have to buy their own clothes and equipment. But people who don’t have enough money work without the necessary equipment to protect themselves from dangerous gas.”



Those who don’t work with the private firms put themselves in even greater danger, going underground illegally and digging for coal to sell themselves.



“If they have nothing to eat, their children are hungry and have no clothes, and there are no ways to earn some money other than going to mine coal, it does not matter that one risks life, one will go anyway. We need jobs so that we don’t go to the mines,” said Kok-Janak resident Bakyt Karabaev.



But they pay a high price.



More than 30 miners have died - most from roof falls and carbon monoxide poisoning - over the last three years, the latest on December 1 at an unregistered mine in the town of Kok-Janak.



And the real numbers is much higher as firms without a license do not report deaths on the job. Relatives also keep quiet, because Kyrgyz miners often sign an agreement stating they have no claim against their employer should there be an accident, according to Kubanychbek Kiyizbaev, a member of the Kok-Janak town council.



A government official said, “Firms that work without licence usually try to conceal the fact that someone has died.”



Though it will have little effect on such unlicensed operators, Abdykakhar Ibragimov, the head of the town administration in Sulyukta, urges the government to toughen up the conditions for mining licenses, which he says are currently inadequate



“Firms can get permissions for the works on coal mines very easily. It is quite easy to meet the requirements for getting a licence,” he said.



The government, however, seems reluctant to change the system.



The State Agency on Geology and Mineral Resources insists that it is already difficult to get a mining license, and says they are only issued to companies whose top officials have a degree in engineering or mining.



It says firms that want to set up mining operations must include in their project proposal a clause on how they’ll keep miners safe. Various state agencies then examine the proposal to ensure these measures are adequate. It must then receive permission from the authorities where the mine is located and only then will the authorities issue the licence.



Human rights activists say workers must take some responsibility for their safety and demand to be given items like protective clothing. They admit, however, that isn’t easy to do.



“Employers are usually seen here as gods and kings so that a worker cannot even mention one’s basic rights. The inhabitants of remote areas should start overcoming legal nihilism,” said Aziza Abdrasulova, the head of a human rights organisation.



“But it is commonly the case that Kyrgyz people - when, for example, a relative dies and it is somebody’s fault - will just accept money and agree not to have any court proceedings. So everything is arranged outside of the court. Yet it is someone's life.”



Aziza Turdueva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek







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