Initial reports say at least 32 miners were killed by a methane gas explosion in the Lenin coal mine, near the town of Shakhtinsk in Central Kazakhstan’s Qaraghandy region. The incident, the latest in a long string of mining accidents in coal mines owned by Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, occurred early Wednesday (September 20) morning. At the time of the blast, more than 300 miners were working in the coal pit, which is 600 meters deep. Most of them were brought to the surface by rescue teams.
While the cause of the accident is still under investigation, neither representatives of the company nor local authorities can provide an exact number of fatalities. According to the latest reports, the blast claimed 41 lives. The remains of 33 miners have been brought to the surface, and seven miners were hospitalized with severe injuries, including three in critical condition (Khabar TV, September 20).
It is feared that the number of dead may double beyond the initially reported figure. As of Thursday (September 21) morning, rescue workers were still searching for another 80 miners trapped in the pit with little hope that they were still alive. The government urgently summoned executives from Mittal Steel Temirtau to explain the causes of the accident and to work ou t a coordinated compensation package. A representative of the company said the families of the dead miners would get 1.5 million tenge ($11,861) each in compensation and the company will cover burial costs (Kazakhstan TV, September 21). A three-day mourning period for the deceased miners was declared in Qaraghandy region.
Executives from the company and government officials set up a joint commission to investigate the accident. But whatever the commission’s ultimate conclusion, the blast in the Lenin coal mine is likely to further aggravate the already tense situation in the largest mining region of Kazakhstan. Mittal Steel Temirtau has operated in Kazakhstan since 1997, and the company’s history has been marked by a long series of embarrassing standoffs between miners and management. In July this year the owners announced a s cheme to sack dozens of workers and proposed paying $6,000 to each miner who left his workplace “voluntarily” before September 15. Trade union activists saw this offer as an attempt to cut labor costs at the expense of downsized miners. They argued that management planned to hire a much cheaper workforce after turning qualified workers out to the streets.
Mittal Steel Temirtau has actively used such tactics since 2000. Media sources indicate that in 2003 the company sacked 862 workers. In 2004 some 1,134 miners were eliminated, and last year 1,410 miners lost their jobs (Aikyn, September 9). Experts believe that such massive cuts in labor costs allow Mittal Steel to maximize its profits. The workforce reductions particularly affect female workers and individuals who have not yet reache d retirement age. With a high unemployment rate in the region, these jobseekers have no other place to go.
Official sources indicate that over the past decade Mittal Steel Temirtau reduced its workforce by 10,000 people. By the year 2010 that number may climb to more than 20,000. But the mining community of Qaraghandy region is even more upset about Mittal’s disregard for safety standards and the ridiculously low wages it offers for 12-hour shifts. Many observers doubt that the miners will ever win the long-drawn battle with their employer as long as the government closes its eyes to the problem (Aikyn, September 9).
Unfortunately, the plight of the miners in Qaraghandy region is typical of the government’s generally dismissive attitude regarding its responsibility to protect its citizens.
On the same day as the Lenin mine accident, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev convened a session of the Security Council and leveled blistering criticism at government officials and the heads of national companies. His anger had been triggered by reports that 55 children in Shymkent (South Kazakhstan) had been infected with the HIV virus through incompetence and the “criminal negligence” of medical workers who had carried out unauthorized blood tests using poorly sterilized syringes. The first symptoms of the HIV infection in 15 of the children were detected in March, but the Health Ministry and regional authorities did not bother to take action. In the meantime, four of the infecte d children died.
Nazarbayev likened the indifference of the authorities to acts of terrorism and ordered the sacking of Health Minister Yerbolat Dosayev and the governor of the South Kazakhstan region, Bolat Zhylkyshiev. If the native elite can bend rules and laws to their own comfort and interests, it is no wonder that foreign companies also defy the laws of Kazakhstan.