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article imageThousands of Ukrainian miners on strike over unpaid wages

By Yulia SILINA (AFP)     Feb 19, 2018 in World

In the middle of the night dozens of miners stand guard in a small town in eastern Ukraine, blocking access to their mine where thousands of employees are on strike over unpaid wages.

In all, four mines run by the state company Selidivvugillya (Selydove Coal)have been paralysed by strike action since last Wednesday.

Most of the company's 10,000 employees have downed tools.

"So are we slaves?", a tall middle-aged man shouts to a crowd huddling in the cold and encased in he smoke from makeshift wood-burning stoves.

The protesters immediately respond with a short and angry "No" and head towards a bus that is shuttling colleagues to the Novogrodivka mine. They intend to block the bus and keep the miners from crossing the picket line.

Despite the cold, about 200 activists are out on the streets of Novogrodivka and nearby Selydove day and night, blocking the roads that lead to the mines.

All four affected mines are close to the eastern territories controlled by Russia-backed rebels.

The strikers check the buses and let through only those workers needed to maintain the mines in good order while extraction is halted.

"We have not been paid since December", says Leonid Shebanov, a 30 year-old miner whose monthly salary, when he receives it, is 6,000 hryvnias (178 euros).

"We are here to draw the attention of politicians to our situation," he told AFP as he warmed himself by a brazier made from a metal trash can.

- Corruption? -

The wage arrears of all Ukrainian miners amounted to 869 million hryvnias (25.8 million euros) in mid-February, according to the president of the Independent Mineworkers Union Mykhailo Volynets.

On Friday, Ukraine's ministry of energy and coal mining said the workers had been paid arrears of 365 million hryvnias (10.8 million euros) for 2017.

"I was on hunger strike for three days and stopped when miners began to receive text messages confirming payment of wages for December", head of the local union of miners, who had to be hospitalised, told AFP.

Still, the 2018 wage packets, that amount to 504 million hryvnia (15 million euros), remain unpaid.

A delegation of miners have travelled to the capital Kiev and hope to meet Igor Nassalyk, minister for energy and coal mining, on Tuesday.

"We were given part of our money, but it's just throwing dust in our eyes," is the way 35-year-old miner Sergey Durov sees it.

He has brought his three year-old daughter with him as he joins his striking colleagues on the streets of Novogrodivka.

"Nobody knows who we sell our coal to, everything is surrounded by mystery," he adds, hugging the child who is wrapped in a blanket.

Oleksandr Kharchenko, managing director at Energy Industry Research Center in Kiev, put the blame on corruption, with money from state-owned mines funnelled elsewhere, creating the wage arrears. The ensuing protests are used to demand an increase in coal tariffs and financial aid from the government.

- Miners 'respected' in Soviet era -

Ukraine has nearly 150 coal mines, concentrated mainly in the rich coal basin of Donbass in the east, but two-thirds of them are currently inside separatist-controlled territory.

The armed conflict with the rebels backed by Moscow has killed more than 10,000 people since its outbreak in April 2014 and has further aggravated the social situation in these depressed areas.

Many settlements near the frontline have been bombed, leading to an exodus of local employers.

"We have no other jobs, if our mines are closed, the towns are simply going to die," said Shebanov.

In Soviet times "the profession of miner was respected and prestigious," sighs another striker.

"But when today my wife asks me, if I brought home money to buy food, I have nothing to say to her."

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