When 18 iron-ore miners came to the surface on 15 October, they had spent a total of 43 days underground in one of the largest strikes in Ukraine’s metal industry in recent years.
Their mine, Oktyabrska, together with three others (Rodina, Hvardiyska and Ternivskaya) are part of the Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Plant, the largest iron ore mining enterprise in Ukraine. The plant is owned by companies of Ukraine’s two richest oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov and Ihor Kolomoiskyi, and supplies raw materials mainly for export.
This is not the first time miners have held protests at the plant in southeastern Ukraine. Just like the city’s other mining and metallurgical enterprises, since 2017 miners’ trade unions have been demanding an increase in their minimum wages to one thousand euros – the equivalent of their earnings before Ukraine’s currency was devalued in 2014 and 2015.
The 2020 protest was sparked by the further deterioration of working conditions. The plant administration introduced piecework wages for most jobs underground, linking people’s daily income to the amount of ore mined. After organising an above-ground protest on 3 September, miners demanded that a recent workplace audit be re-examined – this process had left workers without their previous benefits and allowances – and that enterprise managers should be fired. The strikers demanded that the Ukrainian government revise official lists of harmful and dangerous professions, which provide for early retirement.
At the peak of the strike, a total of 417 workers supported these demands, blocking work at all four mines and endangering the plant’s existing contracts. However, plant management, headed by board chairman Serhiy Novak, called the protest an “illegal strike” and refused to negotiate. The striking workers and their families have complained of pressure and harassment from private security firms, the police, Ukraine’s security services, and even local military conscription offices, which sent out call-ups to workers.
The strike did not go unnoticed by the Ukrainian government. Local MPs from the ruling Servant of the People party, local officials and even Ukraine’s deputy minister of economy visited the Oktyabrska mine to meet striking workers. They all assured the protesters that they had no power to influence the management of a private enterprise, advising them to find a compromise as soon as possible.
Much to the miners’ dismay, Ukraine’s national media virtually ignored the protest. Striking workers believe this is due to censorship introduced at the country’s two largest media groups – 1+1 and Ukraine, which are controlled by the plant owners Ihor Kolomoiskyi and Rinat Akhmetov.
The strike ended in an agreement with plant management. Workers achieved wage increases, promises to keep benefits related to hazardous work, and improve safety and supply of mining equipment. Plant management also promised to not prosecute striking workers, and pay them for time not worked.
But the day after the agreement was reached, a local court in Kryvyi Rih began examining a civil suit by plant management to declare the workers’ protest an illegal strike – which prevented the mine from operating and created unsafe conditions underground. Proceedings against 417 participants in the strike continue, and workers now prefer to call what happened a protest rather than a strike – in defence of their right to action.
Here, four employees of the Oktyabrska mine talk about their protest – and share their impressions from the aftermath. We publish their words in full.