Poland: 23 miners dead in methane blast

An explosion in Halemba mine in Poland has killed 23 miners.

The tragedy happened last Tuesday as a methane blast ripped through a shaft killing all the miners in the area. The 23 miners had been sent to the shaft, in which methane levels were known to be dangerously high, to retrieve equipment worth 17.9 million euros.

Over the last year GPR, the Polish CWI, has been working closely with miners from Halemba mine, campaigning on issues relating to workers’ rights. These miners have been breaking the mould of the stereotypical Polish worker, who is supposed to be deeply religious and conservative. Recently, miners from Halemba came to Warsaw to support a pro-abortion demonstration in response to attempts by the League for Polish Families to introduce a total ban on abortion in all situations, including rape, incest and when the woman’s life is at risk. Earlier in the year miners from the same trade union defended feminists, gays and lesbians on the March 8th demonstration in Warsaw. Almost every month bus loads of miners travel around the country to pickets and demonstrations, showing their solidarity with other groups of protesting workers, often using up their holiday leave to do so.

The media has been lamenting the tragic loss of life, and yet for years they have tried to brainwash Polish society into believing that the miners are a burden on society and do not deserve a lower retirement age than other workers. Another sickening sight is the crocodile tears of the government ministers, including the Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who rushed to the mine on hearing of the tragedy. They talked about the “maliciousness of the mine” or simply “bad luck”. This serves to cover up the role of management and private business, who have flouted health and safety procedures by putting profits before lives.

However, this tragedy could have been avoided. Boguslaw Zietek, leader of the biggest trade union in Halemba mine, Sierpien 80, told us, “They were sent to their deaths risking their lives in order to retrieve equipment from the defunct shaft in which it was known that there was methane. A year ago there was an accident and then the shaft was closed. It was reopened a few weeks ago to retrieve the equipment. From the outset it was clear that there was still methane there. The whole mine knew about the methane but nothing was done about it. In a mine it’s like in the army – there’s an order and you have to go and not discuss.” Zietek added, “There’s a hundred thousand ways to fool the sensors which had been installed there.”

A separate issue is the fact that amongst those who were killed, the majority were not employees of the mine but were employed by a private firm set up by a former manager of the neighbouring mine. “Such people work for peanuts and they can be pushed around even more than employees of the mine,” explained Zietek.

Yesterday a miner appeared on TV with his back to the camera in fear of victimisation. He claimed that faulty sensors had deliberately been installed in order not to lose profits.

Krzysztof Labadz, a Sierpien 80 miner from another colliery in the region, summed up the real causes of this tragedy when he accused the management of putting profits before lives.

Halemba has a bad record of fatal accidents. In 1990 an explosion killed 19 miners at Halemba. A year later 5 miners were killed in a cave-in. Since 2003 more than 80 miners have been killed in Polish mines. Unions blame underinvestment and the ruthless drive for profit.

Sierpien 80 is demanding the sacking of Halemba’s management so that miners and witnesses of the tragedy will be able to testify freely without fear of victimisation. Miners demand the truth about Halemba – no cover up!

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