Ukraine conflict: Danger and exploitation for eastern coalminers

The Ukrainian government estimates more than half the coal mined by separatists is relabelled as Russian coal and transported out to markets in Asia and Europe.

Video Transcript

CHARLES STRATFORD: The eight-hour shift starts with a bus ride to the mine before they head almost 1 kilometer underground. Coal miners in Eastern Ukraine were relatively well paid and well looked after when the country was part of the Soviet Union and since independence 30 years ago. But that changed when fighting started between Russian Backed Separatists and the Ukrainian army in 2014.

YURI: It's very difficult living and working near the front line. It's dangerous because shells could hit the mine and we could be trapped underground. And everyone wants to exploit us. The mine owners, the police, everyone. All those who should defend us, they tried to put their hands in our pockets and rob us instead.

CHARLES STRATFORD: Many of the men at this government owned mine have received only 5% of their $600 a month salary since the start of the year. They blame corruption, the conflict, and slowing demand for a resource that was the driving force of industry under the Soviets and for at least a century before them.

They turn on their head lamps and climb into the lift that will take them 900 meters underground. Much of the mine's infrastructure is in a shocking state of neglect and disrepair. And many of the mines have been damaged by the fighting. In 2017, the government imposed an economic blockade on the Russian Backed Separatists controlled territory. Then separatist leaders seized control of the mines. At least 95% of the 150 in Ukraine.

The vast majority of Ukraine's coal mines are in separatist controlled areas. The Ukrainian government estimates that more than half of the coal mined by separatists is relabeled as Russian coal and transported out to markets in Asia and Europe. And the Ukrainian government calls this theft.

Ukraine accuses Russia of stealing and selling Ukrainian coal in order to offset the estimated $3 billion a year. Moscow spends supporting the separatist controlled territory.

DMITRY ODINTSOV: Everything has been stolen. That's a simple fact. These resources belong to the state of Ukraine but they are mined and extracted by those working for Russia. It's outrageous.

CHARLES STRATFORD: A group of miners appear from the dark after finishing their shift. Some have had to walk up to a kilometer along tunnels to the coalface.

SERGEI: I've worked the mine for 32 years. I'd like to quit but if I do, I'll die of hunger. There is no other work. And a pension I receive isn't enough to live on.

CHARLES STRATFORD: The miners have threatened to go on strike demanding their salaries and better working conditions. We can't stop the war they say, but we can demand our rights. Charles Stratford, Al Jazeera, Eastern Ukraine.