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Thursday, November 5, 1998 Published at 15:32 GMT

World: Europe

'Miner's holiday' proves popular

Mining: "A Soviet-era industrial monster"

By James Coomarasamy in the coal mining heartlands of Upper Silesia

The countries of Eastern Europe are queuing up to try to get into that rich man's club - the European Union. Poorer European countries like Ireland have shown how much prosperity EU membership can bring.

But membership comes at a price and Poland is starting to pay it - restructuring its huge coal industry ready to join the EU in a few years' time.

[ image: Warsaw: Hoping to join the EU club]
Warsaw: Hoping to join the EU club
Under a government restructuring plan, more than half of all mining jobs will go by the year 2002.

Vital Valinsky, of the local mining chamber, says the effect on the area will be devastating.

"In this region, at this time, we've got more than 200,000 people working for the coal mining industry. And in other adjacent industries, like manufacturing of machinery and equipment for the coal mining industry, it takes more than half a million people. And, with their families, it creates a huge problem for us."

Redundancy package

The government is addressing the problem. In the newly-created mines' employment bureau, workers learn about the 'miner's holiday' - a redundancy package promoted by posters of smiling ex-miners standing on a beach. It consists of a generous cash payment and incentives to find work or set up businesses. And so far it's proving popular.

[ image: Coal grime will be a thing of the past]
Coal grime will be a thing of the past
Segoz Govenda is one of the 16,500 miners who have already accepted the deal - many more 'holiday-makers' than the government expected. After seven years down the pit, he's spending time with his wife and young son. He's bought a small apartment with his cash, and is starting a new job with a car firm. Like many of Silesia's ex-miners, he takes a pragmatic view.

"Of course, the package could have been much better. But this is what the government offered. Poland is entering the European Union, and half of us had to go. I've taken the money and I don't regret it."

There have been some protests, by those less confident of transferring their skills. But so far, they have been few and far between. The Solidarity-led government overseeing the changes is being given the benefit of the doubt by the workers who elected it.

No repeat of Britain

It is all a far cry from Britain, where mining reforms in the 1980s brought deep political and social conflict.

John Strongman, the World Bank official in charge of Poland's mining reforms, says: "Britain in the 1980s - there were essentially very different views, very different objectives, very forcefully held by the different stakeholders. If you look back in Poland, there's been a process of eight or nine years now, in terms of talking or proposing plans, as far as coal restructuring is concerned. Many of the unions, I think almost all of the workers and their families, much of the community now in Upper Silesia, very much see the need for the reforms to take place."

Mr Strongman has been in Silesia to view progress, and he likes what he sees. It could mean a billion-dollar loan from the Bank, to help cushion the long-term effects.

In the mines, then, the verdict is so far, so good. The mining reforms may have some way to go, but Poland has finally taken a sword to one of its Soviet-era industrial monsters. It's a fight it can't escape from. And, at the moment, it's holding its own.

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