Kazakhstan: in the ArcelorMittal mines, we work and we die there

“I heard a bang, the blast of the explosion threw me and I lost consciousness,” recalls Vladimir Khaniev

Kazakhstan: in the ArcelorMittal mines, we work and we die there

“I heard a bang, the blast of the explosion threw me and I lost consciousness,” recalls Vladimir Khaniev. A miner at ArcelorMittal in Kazakhstan, he is now disabled after this umpteenth accident on a site of the global steel giant.

Over the past fifteen years, more than a hundred people have lost their lives in the mines of the group, which arrived in this former Soviet republic of Central Asia after the fall of communism and whose presence is being reconsidered by the authorities.

"On the surface, I seem to be a healthy guy. But my head hurts all the time, I have shortness of breath, I'm always tired, I don't sleep much?", lists Vladimir. Khaniev, a man with a frank look and broad shoulders.

Employed for 17 years at the “Lenin” mine in Shakhtinsk, in November 2022 he was the victim of an explosion on this site located in the industrial and polluted region of Karaganda, in central Kazakhstan. The accident killed five miners.

In mid-August, in Chakhtinsk, the death of five other miners once again plunged the country into mourning. Faced with this macabre count, which moves Kazakh society, President Kassym-Jomart Tokaïev threatened to ban ArcelorMittal.

Former miner Vladimir Khaniev suffers from encephalopathy, the result of a lack of oxygenation of the brain when he lay unconscious 800 meters underground, inhaling methane released by the explosion.

He speaks to AFP from the Kazakh steppe, full of natural resources, such as the coal that fuels ArcelorMittal's steelworks. Behind him, only the trestles of the “Lenin” and “Kazakhstan” mines break the infinite horizon.

"These fatal accidents happen because of the greed of the company's managers. Investments in new equipment and safety rules are insufficient, and there is a shortage of personnel," summarizes Mr. Khaniev.

“In this company, we are treated like slaves and these are the consequences, people are dying and will continue to die,” continues this son and grandson of miners.

Contacted by AFP, ArcelorMittal Temirtau, the Kazakh subsidiary, declined an interview request. As for local and regional authorities, they refused to address the subject of mines, in a country marked by decades of authoritarianism.

If the investigation established “100% the fault of the employer” during the fatal accident at the Lenin mine in November 2022, when Vladimir Khaniev was injured, those responsible have still not been judged.

Among the five employees killed was Denis Inkine, an experienced driller.

"My son was burned alive. I didn't see him again, he was buried in a closed coffin," Galina Inkina, his mother, told AFP.

On the table in her living room, a portrait of Denis, looking melancholy, is placed next to an Orthodox icon and a candle, which she lights every morning in his memory.

“They are getting richer and we are losing our children,” laments this former employee of ArcelorMittal. For ten months, this retiree has been fighting for those responsible to be convicted, otherwise, “everything will continue as before”.

“I believe that this is a failure of our government, which should have controlled the company,” continues Ms. Inkina, calling on President Kassym-Jomart Tokaïev to “concern about the miners”.

Not far from her home, on a typical Soviet building, a mural assures her: “miners are the economic and political pillar of the country.” And on panels flourish aphorisms from President Tokayev on the value of work.

However, nearly 1,000 violations of industrial safety rules have already been recorded in 2023 in ArcelorMittal mines.

“Here, we are used to death,” summarizes laconically Andreï Lukin, inspector responsible for security for the “Korgau” miners’ union.

Met in a park in Shakhtinsk where ArcelorMittal has erected a monument "to the eternal glory of the work of the miner", he assures that "the miners are not for the departure of ArcelorMittal", an hypothesis fueled by government declarations.

Because when Kazakhstan gained independence, Shakhtinsk followed the fate of many industrial cities of the former USSR, with economic depression and exodus of the population.

The arrival in 1995 of Mittal, who paid salaries higher than the regional average ($600), removed the specter of the cursed 1990s, when water, heating and electricity were lacking.

“The miners want ArcelorMittal to invest in security and recruitment,” insists Mr. Loukine, who regrets a “lack of specialists, due to a drastic drop in the level of education”.

He also demands tougher standards: "If we don't change the laws in favor of tighter government control, no matter who the investor is, nothing will change."

09/26/2023 08:41:39 -         Chakhtinsk (Kazakhstan) (AFP) -         © 2023 AFP