11-Year-Old Digs for His Livelihood

ReutersA man shoveling coal outside a makeshift coal pit dug in the yard of his house in Snezhnoye in Ukraine's eastern Donbass region.
SNEZHNOYE, Ukraine -- Oleg is a hardened miner who can shift a ton of coal a day underground -- when he's not at school.

The 11-year-old spends every free hour he has helping his father in the illegal and dangerous shallow pits dug around his village in the eastern Donbass region by moonlighting miners desperate to stave off poverty.

Visibly aged by the work -- as his father hacks out the coal in the dank, poorly lit shaft, Oleg loads it into baskets, which are hauled up to his uncle on the surface -- the schoolboy insists he is up to the job, often 10 hours at a stretch.

"Do I get tired? Yes, no, maybe, not really. I'm used to it, I've been doing it a year," the boy says in a serious tone.

"Mom and Dad aren't forcing me, but they say, 'If you want, help out.' But it's good for me, Dad gives me 25 hryvnas [$5] pocket money a month but I need more to buy a hat, boots."

Oleg's father, like most of the men in the coal town of Snezhnoye and the villages nearby, works at one of the two collieries in the area that have managed so far to survive the collapse of much of Ukraine's inefficient coal industry.

But the mine is on its last legs, only a fraction of the men's wages has been paid, and the collieries have long since ceased giving the workers free coal to heat their homes.

The miners, staring poverty in the face and with nowhere else to go, have taken matters into their own hands, hacking out an estimated 34 makeshift pits around the village with only picks and shovels to get at the high-quality black coal.

The pits, about 10 meters deep and topped only by makeshift winding gear cobbled together from wooden braces, a steel rod and an old truck wheel, are meters away from their houses.

It is a haphazard, risky business and the scene, the miners say, is no different from the early days of the industry in the Donbass 200 years ago, when the Russian empire set out on its own industrial revolution. "We had a go at three pits and dug a total of 34 meters down. But we only hit coal at the third try," says Valery, 39, who no longer works at the local colliery after sustaining severe back injuries in a deep mine accident in 1994.

So far, only one of the pits, which the village miners have fondly dubbed "their little mines," has collapsed. No one was injured but the workers say it is just a matter of time before disaster strikes.

Oleg's father and a colleague hew about a ton of coal per day from their square-dug pit, reinforced with timber props, accessible only by a shaky rope ladder, and lit by a lamp fed by an extension lead. Flooding is a continual worry.

For their day's work the two men receive 140 hryvnas. From that, they have to pay out for expensive timber supports in an area with little forestry.

The men say some miners also pay 10 percent or so to the owners of the land in which they're working. They estimate that most take home 50 hryvnas a day.

But that is good money compared to the 200 hryvnas to 300 hryvnas a month they are supposed to receive from their official jobs, itself above the average monthly national wage of 210 hryvnas.

The miners concede uneasily that they are stealing from the state, and none will give his full name.

They say they have no choice. "The state firms simply aren't paying our wages and, if they do, they it's late. That's why I'm here. This is real cash," says Vladimir, 32. "You know yourself -- if you've got money, you've got it all. No money, you're a nobody."