translated by Peter Bankov
The town of Bobov dol sports some of the largest coal mining facilities in Bulgaria. The mining industry there has a hundred-year history but it really took off during socialism when the biggest investment and modernization of the mines occurred. Since 2006 the mines have been operating under a regime of government concession which effectively means privatization without transfer of ownership. The first concession of Bobov dol mines was given to “Pirin Oranovo EOOD” for the shocking sum of 1 BGN (This kind of gift-privatization was common in the 1990s when the state gifted state entreprises to private owners for the promises of debt-repayment and investment). This company operates also the Oranovo mine, where in 2013 five miners lost their lives in an industrial accident. (The state prosecution later dropped the case and acquitted the company, citing an expert report into the causes of the accident. It turned out the report was commissioned by the company and the experts admitted to not having visited the site.) In 2007 Hristo Kovachki bought “Pirin Oranovo” for 35 million EUR (this means that the state effectively lost 35 million EUR of potential privatization income). He is one of Bulgaria’s richest and most powerful energy entrepreneurs. Kovachki is famous for hiding his ownership and concessions via a network of offshore companies, and by operating them via figureheads. Journalist investigations identify him as the real owner both of Oranovo and Bobov dol mines but he repeatedly denies the allegations. He prefers to be publicly visible in his political clout, as the founder of the “Leader” political party. Kovachki found himself in the whirlwind of a major scandal in 2014 when leaked tape recordings disclosed a scheme for keeping the Bobov dol miners in submission by blackmailing them into voting for the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Their correct voting behavior was ensured by way of withholding food in the only store in town their food coupons were valid at the time – “Europa” stores, also belonging to Hristo Kovachki.
This year in October a miners strike broke out over the decision of the leadership to close down the “Babino” mine (“Bobov dol” consists in several mines). The leadership argued that the mine was not profitable enough, even though it pays neither concession fees to the state (it was exempted from paying them for the first years of the concession but then Kovachki was supposed to pay), nor salaries to the workers. On October 11, 2016 120 miners refused to leave the Babino galleries, spending three days and nights in the deepest mine in the Balkans (over 500 meters). They demanded their salaries (or around 300 EUR monthly), withheld since August and their unpaid food coupons. The following text is a short photo-reportage of those days.
11 October 2016: a strike erupts at the Babino coal pit in the Bobov dol mines due to unpaid salaries, unreimbursed food stamp vouchers, and persistent rumours about the upcoming closure of the mine; a scenario which would entail more than 600 people left without of job. Over 100 miners refused to leave the pit galleries until their salaries were paid and they could gain some sense of certainty about the future of the pit. This was not the first scandal in Bobov dol coal mines. In 2014 the workers rebelled against the food stamp program which was only available through the Europa Supermarket, incidentally also owned by Hristo Kovachki, the concessioner of the Bobov dol coal mines. Back then it was revealed that Kovachki controled the votes in town by imposing an artificial deficit of basic goods in the store. A leaked video in the media revealed the entire plan, through which the workers were instructed to vote for a particular party (in 2014 this was the Bulgarian Socialist Party) and if someone disobeyed these instructions, the store was basically left without staple goods. The speaker of the Central Electoral Office and member of the civic advisory council of the centre-right Reformist Bloc, Tsvetozar Tomov, declared however that “in Bobov dol everything is clear, there are no any established electoral violations”.
On the third day (13/10/2016) of the miners’ strike in Bobov dol we went to the town with Petar Dobrev from dVersia. In the early afternoon we reached the site in front of the mine building. It was full of people, gathered in small groups. Suddenly, a large group of women goes to the barrier at the site exit. I ask a man standing next to me who they are . “Workers from Euroshoes”, he tells me. That is how I learn that the infamous shoe sweatshop, where two female workers died in 2006 due to poisonous chemicals and which has had a long record of documented systematic violations of the tailors’ work rights, is situated in the pit building. The man also shattered all my ideas about what a pit looks like. The deep hole in the earth is hidden at the feet of a giant factory.
We join a small group of people, so that we can ask them about the strike, about the problems of the pit, about miners’ life. In the first group the women, with whom I try to talk, are shy and urge a man standing closely to answer my questions. The man tells me that the people around support the striking miners down. “Day and night they sit on the barrels”, he says and points to the metal barrels, around which the workers warm during the night. I ask if there is support in town. “As if!”, he puffs, “the workers [in other coal pits] are working. Everything is divide and conquer”. He tells me that the food stamp vouchers are not reimbursed since March, same with their August and September salaries. He mentions that they rarely receive their full salary at the end of the month, because they get constant sanctions “for not fulfilling the quota”.
Previously the pit disposed of the e most modern technologies, said a former miner. Today it continues to work with the machinery from the 1980s. As if it’s the workers’ fault that the pit uses 30-year old, obsolete machinery, and that their productivity does not meet the owners’ requirements. However, the productivity is a function of the state of capital. For example, if one is set to work on an old copy machine that makes 30 copies per minute, regardless how hard one works, it is impossible to make 45. It is a responsibility of the owner of capital to invest in its improvement, if she/he wants to increase labour productivity. However, no such thing is evident at Bobov dol coal mines.
Furthermore, what the owners could not take goes to the banks: “Everyone here have credit debts.” However, the banks are not interested that salaries are delayed or paid partially: every credit debts has strict date of payment. In order to make those regular payments, the workers rely on the following strategy: when they have health issues, they immediately take a time off, because the National Social Security Institute, in contrast to the mine management, does not delay the sick pay. Because of the frequent absences due health issues, the pit manager, Mr Chevraganski, asks for verification from the Health Ministry (Later, the Ministry denied that such verification request has been issued). However, the worker stressed that this is not the only way of getting any money. They really do get ill far too often. “In the pit it’s 40-50 degrees Celsius. Afterwards, you get cold from the windy weather outside.” Aside from that, their sick pay gets regularly terminated, even if someone has to go to Sofia to stay in a hospital, as a woman tells us what happened to her husband.
One miner said: “Previously, when you say ‘miner’, every door opens up for you. We were getting a lot of money. And now everything is [purchased] on credit. No matter which store or coffee place you go to, they have a pile that big”, and stretches his thumb and index finger to show how thick are the lists with credit debts. When there are no salaries, people start living on loans. The loans appear to be a costly reduction of the scissors that open up between needs and capabilities to meet them. And thus small stores reluctantly turn into non-banking financial institutions that credit consumption. The credits are payed back sooner or later. Of course, after the bank “takes its share” first from whatever the mine had the kindness to transfer.
I meet Ivan, who is responsible for supplying the striking miners with food. He says the food stamp vouchers that they demand to be reimbursed are valid already for all supermarkets, not just Europa – Kovachki’s departmental store. Ivan says that when the vouchers were valid only in Europa, a waffle package costed 24 Leva [about 12 Euro, while the regular price is about 8 times lower]. Ivan gets a net income of 555 Leva. Meanwhile, a woman approaches us with a shoebox turned into a donation box. She says she gets 450 Leva as shoe cutter at Euroshoes. Together with a colleague from the factory they self-organized to gather money for the miners. She herself worked as miner for 7 years (afterwards we learn from another woman that in 2000 a new law was passed, through which women are excluded from engaging in such labour). She was one of the founders of Podkrepa Confederation of Labour [one of the main trade unions in Bulgaria] in town. She was made redundant due to her syndicalist activities. Afterwards, she worked as a telephone operator and then moved to Italy, where she worked for 7 years.
While we talk, some workers place a table nearby, where they gather signatures calling for the the town mayor’s resignation. A conversation starts about the local politicians. There are rumours that the pit manager, Mr. Chevraganski, and the mayor are “Kovachki’s people”. Mr Chevraganski is even a city councillor. The mayor, a Bulgarian Democratic Center [a party closely affiliated to Hristo Kovachki, and co-led by his sister, Krasimira Kovachka] member, is elected by the miners and their families. Some people say that they called her, but she declined listening to them. I start the topic of elections. Is it true, I ask, that you are forced to vote for Kovachki’s candidates? “It is true. They make sure that we voted. It is full with observers: one for every three voters. While the gypsies are selling their vote.” “And do they pay you something for your vote?” “We get 50 Leva”, says a man, “but after the elections they deduct them from our salaries. However, they cannot take their money back from the gypsies, who don’t work here.” And we both burst into laughter. The regular cries how mixed is the political and economic power in Bulgaria do not hold, if it is not understood as a requirement for the flawless capital accumulation.
At some point a rumour spreads that the striking miners are going out. The rumour is promptly debunked. Everyone on the site reassures each other that they will do and say whatever the striking miners ask them to. However, this does not appeal to a fancy-dressed politician that also came on the site and was calling a group of people to list their representation so that he could carry their demands to the mine management. But the demands are all over the media. He does not accept the responses that he will not talk with the management on their behalf or that they came to support the strikers in the pits. “Why are you dividing them?”, I ask him annoyed, “They are not a separate protest, that are supporting the ones down there. Where do you come from?” “From the National Assembly [the Bulgarian national parliament]”, he answers importantly. Afterwards I learn that he was an MP from the Bulgarian Socialist Party, now an independent one. A miner says firmly: “As long as the people do not come out, there will be no talks. This strike is not by us, but by them. We just support it.” The statement gets loud cheers. Another adds: “Until we do not see our colleagues coming from below, we will not take any decisions.” Their solidarity is ironclad. The MP is defeated.
Afterwards a rumour spreads that the state ombudswoman, Maya Manolova, pledged to donate 140,000 Leva “from her own campaign” to at least reimburse the food stamp vouchers. Manolova is already in the pit meeting the striking miners. Another throws in: “Apparently, there are even crazier people than us.” The crowd burst into laughter. A third one shouts: “Boyko [Borisov, the current Bulgarian PM] should also get it!”
We return to the conversation about salaries with a group of miners. One of them says that year and a half ago the management started cutting and delaying salaries. In October there is a strike for August salaries, meaning the delay is at least two months. However, this is the average case. One worker says, his pit owes him eight monthly salaries. Another mentions that they are forced to sign blank declarations, confirming that their salaries are payed. But they do not get payed. They sign out of fear. Other miners confirmed about the declarations. The workers are robed also in more elegant ways. For example, a miner complained that Europa Supermarket garnished 250 Leva that belong to him. It was promised that he will get them in cash, but nothing happened. Aside from money, the mine steals time as well. From 48 days paid holiday in the past, today the miners get only 30. On paper, that is. In reality, they can take about 5 days. But this is not their biggest issue, as they claim. What they mainly want is security for the future, to have a job. “Where should we go?”, the people ask. They tell of many families that have issues and divorces due to the constant lack of money and the lengthy absences of the people working abroad. (Recently, the Mayor of Sofia, Yordanka Fandakova, accused the Bulgarians working abroad in leaving their children behind without considering that these people leave the country exactly in order to manage to raise their children.)
By 5pm we learn that there is no resolution and that the money is still not transferred. “We continue”, somebody shouts. “Don’t listen to anybody. Believe only to those below, when they come up.”, another adds. Meanwhile we talk with the father of one of the striking miners. As a retired miner with more than 30 years of experience in the same mine, he knows well the working conditions: “He is already a third day down there, it gets dangerous. They don’t have a toilet, they sleep on the spoil banks. This pit is all extrahazardous category of gas and dust. My lungs are halfway gone.” It turns out that at some point they did not had any air: the ventilation stopped. The workers are certain that someone from the management turned it off in order to force them to come out. The miners’ father asks rhetorically: “They intend to sue the striking miners for caused damage. And what about those that turned off the air: aren’t they for a court?” The management denies that the ventilation issues are intentional. Most probably we will never know the truth, because such crime can be skilfully covered up. Leaving about 100 miners on 500 meters below the surface without air is attempted homicide.
A retired engineer from the mine tells that previously they were receiving packages with strengthening food. The departmental canteen was situated on two storeys. Today it is closed and the packages are gone. “Now, it is whatever everybody has wrapped up from home. We self-feed ourselves.” Actually, the entire building seems abandoned, although it is still active. The toilets are not renovated since communist times:
The windows in the working halls are mostly broken. During the winter the workers do their labour as if they are outside:
Only the management floor has repaired its woodwork by replacing it with PVC one. Everything else is left unchanged.
The concessioners only suck out the pit’s profits without investing anything in it. (And then experts are saying that “the state is bad proprietor”. You can judge by yourselves whether the private concessioner is “good proprietor”). From a mine with cutting-edge technologies, the factory is nowadays neglected and represents a distant shadow of its heydays. In the past the pit had cooperated with international experts. An engineer that went to West Germany in 1984 says that the German pit had a canteen only for the management. W
e both find it amusing that now we transferred similar things from there minus their salaries. In the past the standard of living between Bulgarian and German workers was relatively comparable: “1,000 Leva monthly salary for those times – you cannot spend them all. Apart from that they were renting their homes, while we owned our houses. We could compete with them: the Germans payed their restaurant bills, so did we”.
The engineer invited us in the coffee place, situated on the site of Euroshoes Shoe Factory. The cashier has the sign “no purchases on credit”, but he allows them. We drink our coffee and talk until suddenly a small kafuffle erupts on the site. We understand that a small group from the striking miners has gone out to be replaced by others.
Striking on shifts can last forever. Meanwhile, negotiations are held with some Mr Borisov from the pit management. I ask a miner standing nearby who he is. He tells me that he does not know him, “the management has more people even than the workers”. We laugh on it, but not for long, when I hear Borisov calling the crowd to elect “five representatives”, an exact repetition of the MP’s words. “With whom can we talk?”, Borisov asks. “With the people!”, the crowd answers. “You are disorganized”, he brawls. I started shouting, although it’s none of my business: “What do you mean ‘disorganized’? Three days of strike, does that looks like ‘disorganized’ to you!?” The word exchange with Mr Borisov continue until someone shouts to go to the pit (blocked for entry until then). It turns out that people from Internal Departmental Control (IDC), a euphemistic term for the thugs that coercively ensure the pit workflow (I think of the overseers in the slave plantations from the books), have prevented the workers that came to replace the more exhausted among their striking colleagues. The entire crowd starts moving quickly to the pit building.
We manage to break through the pit security and reach the last floor, where “the cage” is. This is a sort of an elevator, through which the miners go down to the galleries. The thugs from IDC step back with their tails between their legs. The miners enter “the cage” under crowd ovations “Victory!”.
Shortly afterwards the people move to the management building, while we remain to talk with the women that operate “the cage”. They tell us that they are afraid of the IDC. The power balance shifts and the thugs again gather their confidence as if they own the place. They tell us to scram.
All corridors are filled with Bulgarian Democratic Center posters, some of them ripped off: apparently their presence is unwelcome. Around them there are obituary notices. However, in contrast to the political posters, all of them are left untouched. The miners vote, but afterwards symbolically ruin their “representatives”.
We reach the management building (the one with the PVC woodwork). The national media has already arrived. The workers have entered in the director’s office, who finally gives in and orders an encashment vehicle from Sofia to bring money for the delayed salaries. The striking miners still do not come out. Until 7:30pm the encashment vehicle arrives, escorted by police. Small groups of five are called in the director’s cabinet to hand them their money. First are the ones striking on the spoil banks. Someone says they got their money without the usual deductions. It is unbelievable what kind of struggle ensued so that people could get what they earned.
The entire process drags on. A miner gathers people around him and tells them to remain even if they got their money. “We remain until the striking people down there get their money and come out.” The proposal is unanimously accepted; the voting occurs through loud applause.
At some point we hear that the striking miners decided to come out of the mine. Again, the entire crowd moves excited to the pit. The workers made a lane. “The cage” goes down. A man prepares to give the striking miners a pack of cigarettes.
It seems all the miners are smokers, and after three days one desperately wants a smoke and does not think about his/her lungs after such a long period under the surface. I ask how long does it take for “the cage” to travel the 500 meters. A miner answers “15 minutes”. I try to find a place, from which I could take photos, but I am smaller than most of the people. A man pushes his friends around and tells me: “Come here, but hold on tight, because when they go out, they will push you.” At some point the reporting teams of the Bulgarian National Television and bTV arrive and pushed us aside to move forward. The people around me shouted at them (they were already angry at them because of the blinding lights of their cameras). Apart from that, the media seemed to be only interested in Maya Manolova coming out of the pit, because they went away with her, although down there were still miners.
Their emergence was a complete triumph! The miners won the battle. The Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, tried to put it down on him with his usual arrogant talk in first person singular: “I ordered to pay the salaries”, but this could not fool anybody. The miners got their salaries not because of Borisov, the missing syndicates, the managers and their thugs, but because they led a battle and won it.
They will win the war as well.
Text and photos: Jana Tsoneva. Here you can find more pictures from the events.
 The name is changed.
 This is probably a constructed memory. It is important to note that each memory stating “during the socialist times everything was better” should not be understood literally, because it is a comment critically directed to the present, not the past. Furthermore, we do not have direct access to the past. The act of remembrance is an always-anymore action, occurring in the present and brought by a contemporary moment or event. If the present was not so problematic, it would not have been so often compared negatively with the past.
 For example, note the following title from Mediapool: “The miners’ strike in Bobov dol ends after intervention by the PM and the ombudswoman”.
 In fact, I don’t know what kind of war the workers are leading. I wish it was a class war, but I am not sure if they themselves understand it as such. For example, I asked a miner why don’t they take over the pit and not introduce self-management, but he completely did not understand my question and started explaining something about gas meters and the nitrogen level in the galleries.