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Romania: Miners Bow To Economic Necessity By Departing Mines

Bucharest, 28 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- It looks like economic realities will finally achieve what political forces could never do, namely tame the Romanian miner.

The miners gained almost legendary status as the only working community in Romania tough enough to defy the regime of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. In more recent years their image has been tarnished by the violence of their beheviour, but they retain a singular profile.

Now, however, with Romania's reformist government pushing through the long-delayed restructuring of the country's industries, tens of thousands of miners are leaving the pits. The government of Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea is offering substantial compensation packages to those who leave the overstaffed and outdated mines. That's the opening move in the government's plan to revitalise the coal industry on a smaller but more efficient basis.

One of the miners who has opted for the retirement package is Sandu Grigore, who told RFE/REL this week that he feels it's useless to stay. He said he fears for the future, and that if he does not go voluntarily, he would probably be sacked anyway. He said he wants now to go to the countryside to seek work.

Marin Condescu, a mining trade union leader, told RFE/RL that laid-off miners will be granted up to 26 months' wages as compensation, representing up to 22 million lei or almost $3,000 at the current exchange rate.

Condescu said that so far 40,000 people, from a total of over 200,000 working in mining, who have signed up for retrenchment. And those numbers are expected to increase after September, when the compensation packages will grow in line with wage increases.

Alternative work will be scarce for many of those leaving mining. But there's never a cloud without a silver lining. Those who opt to bank their cash pay-out may be able to earn some $1,500 in interest a year at the current interest rates of around 50 percent. That is more then the $1,000 annual average wage of a Romanian employee -- while those interest rates last.

Some of the laid-off miners will use the money to start their own businesses, others are likely to go abroad to search for work, and many more will go in the countryside to do farm work.

Condescu said that as a consequence of the lay-off process, the union expects that some 150,000 people will migrate from the mining regions back to their native areas, which are particularly in the south and east of the country, where high unemployment rates are usual. He said this expected migration, the biggest in 30 years, can be expected to create problems which need to be assessed by the Romanian authorities.

Romanian Labour Minister Alexandru Athanasiu says however that in particularly hard-hit areas the government is offering retraining programs, and is also incentives to people to remain where they are presently living, in the form of tax cuts and low interest rate credits.

The focus of coal mining in Romania is the Jiu Valley, in the centre of the country. It's a grey and polluted area scarred by slag heaps, where the miners live in settlements more resembling concentration camps than towns. Sociologists explain the miners' tendency to aggressive political behaviour to factors such as their hard and dangerous working life, coupled with their miserable home and housing conditions.

In the Ceausescu era the miners were the only group directly to challenge the much-feared regime, becoming famous for their 1977 and 1981 strikes. They thereby earned fame, but the Jiu Valley miners later fell into disgrace for their violent incursions into Bucharest in 1990 and 1991. On those occasions paradoxically they were supporting the neo-communist regime of former president Ion Iliescu, who at the time was under pressure from the new democratic elements.

The "dark forces", as they were called in 1990 by the international media, caused deaths, scores of wounded and extensive damage on their "visits" to the Romanian capital. The miners' abuses in Bucharest remain unpunished seven years later. They threatened even this year to go to the Romanian capital again to obtain satisfaction for some trade union type requests.