No more dying for Mittal
say Kazakhstan miners
24,000 coal miners strike over safety, pay
Rescue workers return after recovering bodies from mine in Shakhtinsk, Kazakhstan.
BY PAUL PEDERSON
October 3Holding banners that declared "No more dying for Mittal" and "We don't want to live in poverty," some 6,000 steelworkers and coal and ore miners rallied September 30 at the company offices of Mittal Steel in Temirtau, Kazakhstan.
More than 24,000 coal miners are now on strike in the former Soviet republic against the Netherlands-based steel monopoly. Steelworkers and iron ore miners employed by Mittal at the same giant steel milling and iron ore and coal mining complex of 55,000 workers have threatened to join them if their demands are not met.
The strike began five days after a September 20 methane explosion killed 41 miners at the Lenin mine, one of the deadliest mine disasters in the history of the central Asian country. After workers there refused to return to work on September 25, they were joined by miners at three other Mittal-owned mines. By September 29 miners at the companys four remaining mines had also walked out.
Mittal, today the world's largest steel producer, with 61 plants in 27 countries, purchased the Karmet steel plant, with the coal and iron ore mines that feed it, from the government of Kazakhstan in 1995. The complex is the country's largest private employer. It is one of the steel giant's most profitable ventures, accounting for 8 percent of its production last yearwith the capacity to make 5.5 million tons of steel annually.
Mittal responsible for disaster
On September 29, Emergencies Minister Shalbai Kulmakhanov announced that a government investigation into the September 20 disaster "found the blast was caused by the turning on of electricity in an unventilated mine," Associated Press reported.
"The main cause is the poor organization of work and a lack of coordination among workers," Kulmakhanov said. He said Mittal Steel was responsible for the conditions that led to the explosion.
The striking miners are demanding the company replace the dangerous and deteriorating Soviet-era equipment in the mine, raise their wages to $15 per hour from their current rate of $350 a month, and substantially increase compensation for injury and death on the job.
According to Kazakhstan Today, they are also demanding the government increase pension payments to workers "engaged in harmful and hazardous production" and resolve "social problems in the towns of Shakhtinsk, Abai, Sarani by means of municipal budget increases." The article adds that "in relation with this the regional governor will visit the town facilities: hospitals, schools, roads, and the heat power plant."
The steel company, which raked in $28 billion in earnings last year, has promised to raise the miners wages if they agree first to go back to work. "But," Kazakhstan Today reports, "The miners categorically refuse to go back to work until their salaries are raised."
Steelworkers, others may join strike
A Mittal executive said steel production is down 30 percent due to the strike. The company is seeking to import coal from Russia and is speeding up production at its steel mills in Poland and Romania, AP reported.
Steelworkers and iron ore miners at the complex, however, whose union has been in negotiations for two months, may vote to join the walkout if their demand for a 40 percent wage increase is not met.
"Ten years ago we produced 160,000 tons of steel a year. Now we turn out 300,000 tons, while the pay is the same," Yuri Baranov, a leader of the steelworkers union, told the crowd of steel, iron ore, and coal workers rallying September 30 outside the headquarters of Mittal's Kazakh division, according to AP.
Daily pickets of about 1,000 miners and family members are taking place at the town council in Shakhtinsk. In response, Kazakhstan Today reported, cops are stopping and checking all cars entering the town.
A "conciliatory commission" composed of delegates from all eight striking mines, the regional governor, the mayor of Shakhtinsk, several members of parliament, and representatives of Mittal's top management has been established to negotiate a settlement.
U.S., Kazakh governments get closer
Meanwhile, as the strike unfolded, the presidents of the United States and of Kazakhstan conducted a highly publicized White House meeting. Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev pointed out in a September 29 press conference in Washington that "one-third of all foreign investments in Kazakhstan are from the United States."
A joint statement by the two governments lauded the advances that U.S. and other private capital has made in extending its reach over the countrys natural resources and labor power, especially energy resources. The Kazakhstan government promised to work with Washington on "strengthening the rule of law, taking steps to improve Kazakhstan's investment climate, and reducing business risk."
Referring to the increased U.S. military presence in the region, the two presidents committed to "further cooperation between our armed forces in counterterrorism and peacekeeping programs."
As we go to press
Mittal announced October 4 it had agreed to triple wages of striking miners and grant a 20 percent pay raise to metalworkers at the Karmet steel complex in Kazakhstan, as well as allocate more funds to improve mine equipment.