RUDA SLASKA (Poland): 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 per cent.

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.

“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.

“I’ve seen a brick come through a window just millimetres 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 per cent.

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 tonnes 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 per cent of Poland’s electricity — has made many politicians wary of crossing miners’ groups.

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 month.—Reuters

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