Kazakh Miners Scrabble for Wages

Rich in coal, Kazakhstan finds itself struggling to keep production steady after the collapse of the Soviet Union

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ARTIFICIALLY created as a gulag town in 1937 by dictator Josef Stalin, Karaganda today is a desolate coal mining outpost perched atop Kazakhstan's vast steppes, where the temperature in winter often dips below minus 36 degrees F.

Unlike the capital of Alma Ata, the beginnings of a market economy is hardly noticeable here. The largest department store, TsUM, sells little more than lampshades, shampoo, and garlic presses. But Karaganda does have one thing in abundance: coal. ``We have gas, coal, gold; we have first-class minerals. We are going to live amazingly well,'' pronounces Zholumbed Mukhamedzhanov optimistically. He is deputy general manager in charge of production for the Karagandaugol Coal Association, the state-run monopoly that runs all the coal enterprises in the area.

Future riches

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``Someday, we're going to have money up to here,'' Mr. Mukhamedzhanov says, brushing his hand under his chin to emphasize the point and praising President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's leader. ``But not tomorrow or even the day after tomorrow. Maybe in two to three years.''

Kazakhstan, a country the size of India, is so rich in oil that oil executives call it the new Kuwait. But in Karaganda, coal is the prime industry. With 24 underground coal mines and three open pits, the 30,000 coal miners in this town of roughly 650,000 people extracted an estimated 33 million tons of coal last year, or about 1,100 tons of coal per miner.

But plans to privatize the mines are only in the preparatory stages.

Mines are overstaffed by as much as four times compared with the United States; buyers often do not pay their debts on time; and management is often behind in wage payments. To top it off, export plans have been given last priority.

As a result, production is down in many mines here and coal extraction on the whole is only a tiny fraction of its potential. Without a complete overhaul of the system or an infusion of foreign investment, the outlook for the coal industry in this nation of 17 million is bleak.

At the model Kostenko Order of Lenin mine on the outskirts of Karaganda, 2.6 million tons of coal was extracted in 1993, compared with 3 million tons the previous year, says director Kanif Kashapov.

The demise of the Soviet Union has been the single most important factor affecting production, he says.

``We have big problems with technology, and it's difficult for us to obtain material,'' Mr. Kashapov says. ``All the material we need stayed behind in Russia.''

In February, workers at Kostenko planned a strike to protest a month's delay in wage payments. The mine was short of cash because clients such as Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan were negligent on their debts. But the strike was averted after government officials in Alma Ata agreed to partly subsidize production.

Russian coal miners are in similar straits. In the arctic Russian city of Vorkuta, miners in the largest Severnaya coal mine went on strike March 3. At least 89 have remained underground since, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies reported. On Saturday, three miners began a hunger strike to demand back wages.

Privatization could help Karaganda's coal industry choose its own customers and decrease its reliance on the government. Up to now, however, that seems only a pipe dream.

Limited clientele

Karagandaugol has only two customers in the ``far abroad'' - Hungary and Germany. Further export plans were canceled when Russia began charging large tariffs to transport coal across its territory, Mukhamedzhanov says.

``For the time being, Karagandaugol remains a government monopoly,'' he says. ``Plans for privatization are under way, but so far only in the preparatory stage.''

Apart from delayed wages, miners here suffer a host of other problems. Inflation has eaten up much of their savings, and ethnic tensions between Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs have forced many Russian speakers to emigrate.

More devastating, recent figures for the former Soviet Union show one mining fatality for every 1 million tons of coal extracted, compared with one fatality for 10 million tons of coal in the US. Since the US figure refers to processed coal while the other refers to raw tonnage, the actual figure is probably considerably higher.

The average life expectancy of a miner in the former Soviet Union is only 49 years. Karagandaugol alone saw 49 fatalities in the first 49 weeks of 1993.

While mining officials here say most fatalities have occurred because of personal negligence, the lack of safety equipment is a factor, says John Marunich of the Washington-based Partners in Economic Reform. This nonprofit organization, funded by the US Agency for International Development, helps former Soviet coal enterprises make the transition to a market economy. Mr. Marunich has been based in Karaganda since May.

One of Marunich's projects has been helping supply miners with respirators, rubber gloves, and reflective tape to affix to hard hats.

``I've even been to mines here where they are working with lathes and drill presses and not wearing glasses,'' Marunich says.

Roof support in subterranean pits has also contributed to the number of underground deaths, Marunich says.

In Karaganda, roofs are supported by steel arches placed one meter apart. In the US, most mine roofs are supported by fully grouted roof bolts.

``That means that every three feet here you have steel arches that have to be erected by hand,'' Marunich says, adding that workers are often exposed to unsupported roof.

Respirators are antiquated andsafety glasses are rare. A woman was seen distributing ``natural healing honey'' to miners, who always drink a glass of milk and take a hot sauna after each shift. The lone swimming pool was built by the men because the mine lacked necessary funds.

``We are potentially a rich country. We're a country that in the future will become rich,'' says Erik Asanbayev, Kazakhstan's vice president. ``But for now, all our wealth lies underground.''

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