Soviet-era practices undercut safety in Russia’s mines
Faced with the possibility of reduced wages if they fail to meet quotas, miners muffle methane detectors with wet rags in order to keep working.In Russia's coal mines, Soviet-era quota-based pay incentives pressure miners to skirt safety rules while managers look the other way, too often with deadly consequences, experts say.
The twin methane gas explosions that killed 90 people miners and rescue workers this month at Russia's largest underground coal mine was only the latest catastrophe to hit the tragedy-scarred industry.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week laid bare a bleak record on safety in Russia's mines, saying that despite a nine-fold increase in safety spending over the past decade the number of deaths has not fallen.
But Russian mining union activists have long argued that it is imperative to end the practice of closely linking pay to coal extraction that has its roots in the Stakhanovite work customs of the Soviet Union.
Miners complain that because they are paid in full only if they meet monthly production volumes, it is common practice to muffle methane detectors with wet rags in order to keep working.
"Miners are not suicide bombers. We don't go in there to die," Ruben Badalov, the deputy head of the Russian Coal Miners' Union told AFP.
"But they may overlook some small regulations, and if these are many then it can lead to calamity," he admitted, but added scornfully: "Work incentivisation, as it's called."
"It most often means that if you don't produce your quota, whether by safe or unsafe means, then your salary will be cut."
"It's wrong because it drives miners to break rules or shut their eyes to small violations," he said.
Angry protestors demand improved wages
Putin held a video conference last week with officials and mine investors, including billionaire Roman Abramovich, after angry protests erupted over working conditions at the Raspadskaya mine.
Even as rescuers worked to recover the bodies of all those trapped, some 200 protesters blocked a railway, pelting police with stones and bottles as they demanded fixed wages.
The miners' protests recalled strikes in 1989 that spread in waves from coal mining hills of the Kuzbass region and are said to have hastened the unravelling of the Soviet Union.
With the government already tense over unrest linked to the financial crisis, authorities sent in riot police to break up the protests and 28 people were arrested.
It is not yet clear what caused the tragedy at the Raspadskaya mine -- the deadliest in post-Soviet history after an explosion that killed 110 people at a nearby mine in Ulyanovsk in March 2007.
A probe into the 2007 blast found that miners had disabled methane gas detectors by wrapping them in their quilted workers coats.
Russia’s Soviet-era, quota-based wage system
The unions have long lobbied the government to demand miners be paid by the hour, and experts say Russia is one of the last countries to retain the Soviet-era, quota-based system.
One miner dies for every four million tonnes of coal mined in Russia. But in the United States the work is 10 times safer with one death for every 40 million tonnes, according to Rosinformugol, which tracks the coal sector.
In wake of the latest tragedy, Putin has called for officials and unions to agree wage systems under which at least 70 percent of miners' salaries would be fixed monthly.
"This will increase the security of the miners working underground and minimise the motivation for miners to extract more at any cost -- neglecting safety and risking lives," Putin said.
But industrial expert Sergei Smirnov expressed concern that the private sector's drive to maximise profits and export cheap coal to the world market is too closely tied to the state's interests.
"We worry about the health and safety of miners five times less than in any other country," said Smirnov, of Moscow's Higher School of Economics.
"Russian coal prices are lower because managers are skimping on safety measures, particularly during the economic crisis, and the state is ready to look the other way."
Alissa de Carbonnel / AFP / Expatica