Russia: Mining explosion and fires kill hundreds

Cost cutting for profits behind preventable tragedies

Over 100 miners killed in a methane explosion in a Siberian coal mine, 60 old age pensioners perish in a fire in the south of Russia, 6 killed as aircraft misses a runway in the Volga city of Samara and ten die in a fire in a Moscow night club. These are just a few of the headlines of the past few days in Russia. Every year, 20,000 people lose their lives in air crashes, fires and technological accidents in Russia – that is over 50 deaths a day. Two thousand miners a year die at work. Life in Russia is cheap. In the conditions of brutal capitalism, the lives of working people get scant regard. In each of the recent tragic cases, safety regulations were blatantly ignored and ‘cost-cutting’ was a major contributory factor to the deaths of so many.

It took fire engines over an hour to reach the old people’s home in south Russia because budget restrictions meant the nearest fire station was over 50 kilometers away. The night club fire broke out during a performer when club management in an attempt to boost attendance numbers breached fire safety rules. Usually, reports into fire tragedies like this reveal club doors were locked, windows barred and exits blocked.

The world’s press rushed to say the coal mine fire was an ‘exception’. After all, the mine was only sunk 5 years ago, they stated, and equipped with modern fire and explosion prevention equipment. However, all the information now coming out indicates safety rules were systematically breached at the mine because miners were pushed to increase production.

Mines run to ‘rules’ of neo-liberalism

When the ‘Ulyanovskaya’ mine was officially opened, in 2002, the Regional Governor covering the mine, Aman Tulyeev, telegraphed Valdimir Putin asking him to “consider the opening of the mine a present for your birthday”!

The mine operated according to all the rules of neo-liberalism. It had high productivity levels because, as one miner explained, all the rules were broken – digging was carried out in two directions at once against accepted norms – this allows methane gas to build up very quickly and even new imported gas detectors can not always cope with a sudden spurt of gas.

One of the reasons miners were encouraged to work harder is to improve their wages, which are production related. Even with with full bonuses, a Siberian miner is lucky to earn 800 euros, a month. As a result, pieces of ragged cloth were often stuffed into sensors to stop the automatic shut down of equipment when gas levels increase! Moreover, Russia’s energy strategy is based on a huge increase in coal production – by 30% in by 2010. This coal is intended for domestic use, allowing more oil and gas to be released for export. This leads to miners adopting a fatalistic outlook. As one miner from the Ulyanovskaya plant commented, “It’s a form of kamikadze. Some of the men openly say, ‘Let the mine bury me, at least my wife will keep the flat!’”

Experts in the coal industry know all these dangers – but in the land of coal, profit is king. Nothing is allowed to stop the fat cats getting fatter. Only when there are major disasters in the industry, do safety issues arise.

This week, a further 12 mines and 29 pits were forced to suspend operations after they were discovered to be breaching safety rules – at least three of these owned by the same company that operates Ulyanovskaya. No doubt, they will remain closed for a few weeks, until the fuss dies down. Then, once again, miners will go back to their hazardous work and many more will be sacrificed for profits. Such is the norm in capitalist society. The only way to ensure full safety procedures in the mining industry, and that these huge natural resources are put to the use of the whole of society, is to nationalise the mining industry under genuine democratic workers’ management and planning.

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