(HN, December 3, 2011) - Children in their early teens have been observed and filmed working in coal mines in Ukraine and the Ukrainian Government is ignoring the problem, activists say.
There are at least 800 illegal coal mines in Ukraine, where children work alongside adults, according to a video released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2005. However, sources say today the conditions are much worse, with the number of mines at well over 2,000.
The ILO has described the illegal coal mines, or kopankas (копанки), as "one of the most dangerous workplaces in the modern world." One American journalist called the conditions "medieval."
The front line of the situation appears to be in the eastern oblast of Donetsk (Донецьк) and the surrounding Donbas region. Ukraine's richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov (Рінат Ахметов), who owns the Ukrainian football club, Shakhtar Donetsk, comes from Donetsk.
The Donetsk region is also where the elected President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, spent his troubled childhood and where he started his political career.
Children working in the mines are reported to be as young as 12 and receive as little as $1-a-day. (The Ukrainian Labour Code sets a minimum working age of 16).
Many of the pits where children have been seen working are extremely rudimentary, with small entrance ways located under homes and fences, deep in wooded forests - even in vegetable gardens. In some villages in Donetsk Oblast, the holes are so numerous that it causes a risk to children, who could fall as deep as 50 meters.
A documentary produced by a Baltic company called "Pit Number Eight" shows teenage children collecting coal deep underground with the most minimal of safety equipment and no adult supervision.
The ILO documentary (above) says working children have no fixed hours and work in unsafe working conditions using primitive, hand-made instruments. It says that even the simplest of safety measures - emergency exits, ventilation, gas detectors and ceiling reinforcements - are missing.
Rights activists say the industry is so lucrative that the oligarchs and senior politicians - right up to the President's Administration and his circle - profit handsomely from it and have little inclination to stop the use of child labour.
The previous administrations of Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko were successful in closing many of these illegal mining operations, but over 2000 kopanka’s reopened just as soon as Yanukowych and the Party of Regions came to power in March 2010, activists say.
In fact, earlier this year, a Ukrainian government working commission was set up in Donbas, to explore ways of legalizing kopanka’s instead of eliminating them.
Ukrainian activist Lyubov Maksymovich confirmed recently that Kopanka’s are an “open secret” in Ukraine. "Everyone knows about this abuse, but everyone including many journalists are too scared to talk about it publicly, fearing repercussions from the mafia and or the government."
Activists say there is a direct link from the kopankas to the top captains of industry.
Said one: "The business model that kopanka coal pits employ is simple. The illegally-produced coal using child labour. is delivered to the local trading site –or coal bazaar (usually by the truck loads), where it is bought, usually for cash, hand-to-hand by the representatives of conditioning and refinement factories. No paper trail. Afterwards, this illegal coal undergoes conditioning and refinement, where it becomes fully “legal” and a standardized product of these factories, which is then sold for metallurgy, power generation, or is exported."
The profitability of kopanka operations was estimated by the Segodnya newspaper at $125,000 per month per mine, a “backyard cottage” industry that produces 100 tons of coal per day.
Activists and volunteers in Canada and Ukraine say they have sifted through thousands of Russian documents, stories, videos and TV news items looking for facts (the smoking gun) that could link illegal child labor practices in Kopanka’s directly to the Ukrainian State Coal Mining companies in Donbas. They allege that, through the transaction process, coal and money are laundered to create the appearance of legality.
One critical op-ed on the kopankas penned for the Kyiv Post was reportedly removed from the newspaper's website after it hit a nerve with Akhmetov. In an email dated November 1, 2011, and shared with HUMNEWS, Brian Bonner, a senior editor at the Kyiv Post, is quoted as saying to the writer: "Your opinion piece has created a stir with Rinat Akhmetov's people, so we have deactivated the article until we investigate."
In a July 2011 Kyiv Post article on illegal mines in Donetsk, the newspaper actually praised Akhmetov's mining companies - Pavlogradvuhilia mines, owned by Ukraine’s largest energy holding DTEK, a part of the oligarch's System Capital Management group. The Post reported: "It offers miners a salary of almost Hr 8,000 per month, stringent safety conditions and some social benefits, such as cheap holidays."
The problem of child labour in Ukraine is so widespread that a Ukrainian newspaper, Дзеркало Tижня, called it a "tradition" - estimating as many as 350,000 under-age workers in the country.
In a joint statement in 2009 with the Ombudsman of Ukraine, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said: "More often Ukrainian children become victims of worst forms of child labour, human trafficking, prostitution and pornography." It also called for more stringent enforcement and changes in legislation.
The ILO says it is working together with trade unions and the government to put an end to child labour and create new jobs.
- HUMNEWS staff