January 10, 2006

Cold and desperate, Polish jobless rob coal trains

By Janusz Chmielewski

RUDA SLASKA, Poland (Reuters) - As the train rumbles north,
the security guards on board finger their guns nervously,
peering through the snow for any sign of bandits eager to steal
their precious cargo -- coal.

Police say organized gangs and freelance scavengers, drawn
from Poland's army of unemployed, risk death or dismemberment
to steal coal from trains as they cross southern Silesia, the
country's industrial heartland.

Some 200,000 coal miners have lost their jobs in a series
of pit closures since the 1990s, leaving many former workers
struggling to get by in this region near the Czech border where
unemployment in some areas stands around 30 percent.

State railway PKP says it loses more than 10 million zlotys
($3.2 million) a year in theft of coal and the resulting damage
to equipment.

"(Coal thieves) have been run over by trains, and buried
under piles of coal or coal dust spilling out of rail cars,"
says Silesia's police spokesman Andrzej Gaska.

Some thieves build obstacles to force trains to stop, and
many are willing to fight the railway guards who carry weapons
and who try to stop them. The gangs sell the coal for cash,
while scavengers are looking for ways to heat their homes.

There are no reliable figures for the numbers of people
involved in the illegal practice or for alleged injuries

"This is a pathological region -- it's former miners who've
lost their jobs. They don't have anything to live on, and the
tracks are the closest source of income," said one railway
police officer, watching a train roll past.

"I've seen a brick come through a window just millimeters
from a guard's head. Another time when they stopped a train,
one of our guys got hit in the face with a shovel," said the
officer, who declined to be identified.


Before Poland's communist authorities were ousted in 1989,
Poland's miners were feted by the government as heroes of the
working class for their role in keeping the country's flagship
steel mills and other heavy industry running.

During the 1980s, miners became champions of anti-communist
opposition for their role in the Solidarity movement.

Since 1989, pit closures have cut employment in the sector
by around two-thirds, in a country with the highest jobless
rate in the European Union at around 18 percent.

Roman Palac, a World Bank expert on reforms to the coal
sector, says all redundancies were voluntary and generously
funded by the state. But the mine closures had a domino effect.

"Often the closure of a mine resulted in the closure of
other companies in the town and low mobility meant that people
were left in these places, trying to operate in a very tough
economic situation," he said.

Despite the job cuts, the coal industry remains a drag on
public finances as successive governments have been reluctant
to complete painful reforms in a politically powerful sector.
Poland produces around 100 million tons of coal a year.

Lingering public sympathy, the miners' record of staging
violent demonstrations and coal's role in the economy --
generating more than 90 percent of Poland's electricity -- has
made many politicians wary of crossing miners' groups.

Before September elections, parliament passed a law
extending miners' rights to take early retirement.

Analysts say the 70 billion zloty ($22.2 billion) cost
through 2020 is one of the biggest obstacles to meeting budget
deficit and public debt criteria required to be able to adopt
the euro as hoped early in the next decade.

Palac says even though soaring coal prices have turned the
sector from annual losses of about 4 billion zlotys ($1.3
billion) in 2003 to a 2 billion zloty profit last year, many
jobs are gone forever.

"The structure of the Silesian economy is changing. There
was a lot of heavy industry -- mining, steelmaking, coke
producers and all kinds of other industries that were set up to
produce in a completely different economic reality," he said.


Many of those who have been left behind seek warmth for the
winter by gathering coal that has been dumped alongside the
rails in earlier robberies, risking a 100 zloty ($30) fine for
trespassing if they are caught by police patrols.

"I came to get coal so my kids can be warm at home and not
have to sit around under blankets," said one woman, among a
group detained by a patrol in Ruda Slaska, not far from
Silesia's main city of Katowice.

"They're sick, I had to pay for medicines for them -- and I
also have to buy food, and I'm all alone," she said, breaking
down in tears and hiding her face.

In the end, the police let the women leave with a warning,
but they had to hand over the coal they had collected in
plastic bags. The police said they saw little sense in fining
people whose jobless benefits amount to a few hundred zlotys a