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Tuesday, February 16, 1999 Published at 13:56 GMT

The miners: Where did 180,000 pit workers go?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Britain's mining industry was a force to be reckoned with.

Miners could be counted in the tens of thousands and their political influence was immense.

Remember the industrial action of the early 1970s, which effectively brought down the Heath government; the bitterly divisive strike of 1984/5; the storm of disapproval that greeted Michael Heseltine's mass pit closures in 1992?

Fifteen years ago mining was a "cause" championed by every trade unionist, militant student and card-carrying member of the Labour Party. Then the National Coal Board employed 191,000 mineworkers at 170 collieries.

[ image: The pit wheel: A rare site in modern Britain]
The pit wheel: A rare site in modern Britain
Today the headcount is tiny by comparison - more like 10,000, working in just privately-owned 15 pits. And in case it slipped your notice, the miners are about to strike again.

Victims of a programme of pit closures, the "dash for gas" and privatisation, what happened to the missing miners?

Steve Brunt, himself an ex-miner and director of the Coalfield Learning Project, which educates and trains former mineworkers, calls it the "$64m question".

No official records

There is no official record of what happened to the tens of thousands of miners forced to abandon the industry between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, he says, although a proportion of them will have died.

The most recent in-depth study, by the Coalfield Communities Campaign, is now five years old. Based on a survey of 900 ex-miners who lost their jobs in the 1992 shutdowns, the report painted a grim picture.

It found more than half of men were out of work more than a year after leaving the pit. Forty-six per cent were unemployed while 9% were in training or education.

[ image: Arthur Scargill: Embodied miners' militancy when he led the strike of 1984/5]
Arthur Scargill: Embodied miners' militancy when he led the strike of 1984/5
A big share - 44% - were working, although many had been forced to take substantial pay cuts.

Hidden unemployed

The report also picked up on the issue of "hidden" unemployment. Thirty per cent of respondents were claiming sickness benefits, and so did not figure in the unemployment numbers.

Five-years on this remains a major factor, says a spokesman for the campaign, who estimates unemployment claimants are outnumbered 3:1 by those claiming sickness benefits.

Early retirement

Today most of the former miners are probably over 50 and edging towards retirement, says Mr Brunt, whose work is based in the former mining communities of South and West Yorkshire.

The majority of over-50s would have "resigned themselves to the fact they're not going to get a job" and taken "early retirement", he says.

The issue of hidden unemployment was picked up on in a report published last year by the government-backed Coalfields Task Force. By factoring in the concealed numbers, it estimated unemployment in four substantial coalfields - Durham, Northumberland, Lancashire and Yorkshire - to be "in excess of 20%."

[ image: The miners did not give up without a fight]
The miners did not give up without a fight
For the under-50s the picture is less cohesive, according to Mr Brunt, who Barnsley base lost all its 15 coal pits over since the mid-1980s.

New jobs and self employment

"We've got one or two factories opening up here, but they're mostly semi-skilled so not that well paid. Others have found work with the local authority and the hospital - the two biggest employers in Barnsley.

"Some of the younger ones have set up their own businesses - take-away food, car valeting. I know one who started as a barber, but that failed." The 1994 CCC report found only 3% of respondents were self-employed.

Others have taken work as security guards or the hospital porters while some have never climbed out of unemployment, says Mr Brunt.

Informal economies

As for reports of rising crime levels in former mining communities, he speaks of a growth in "informal economies" such as drugs and crime. Most miners would be "opposed" to taking such a direction, he says, but adds: "There's always the odd one or two".

Urban regeneration schemes

Set against this are the myriad governmental efforts to help affected areas, the most widespread of which is the European Rechar programme.

Millions have been ploughed into reclaiming former colliery sites, with the aim of cleaning up the environment and generating employment.

In former East Midland mining communities, for example, Rechar-backed projects include a visitor and education centre at Bolsover Castle, in Derbyshire, and a £1.5m new Technology, Training and Business Centre at Basford Hall College, Nottinghamshire.

Soon, says Mr Brunt, the collieries will be just a distant memory to these areas and then they will lose the tag "mining communities".

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