Hearing of the tragic loss of life in the Gleision mining disaster, some may well be surprised to learn that any coal is actually still being mined in Wales, such was the torrent of propaganda in the 1980s telling us all that neither geology nor economics would permit the continuation of Britain’s nationalised coal industry.
Amongst the ruins of British Coal, however, small privately-owned collieries have been making a sporadic reappearance, with small businesses reopening low-tech drift mines in order to capitalise on the rising prices that have accompanied growing international demand for coal.
According to the miners’ union, the NUM, these tiny enterprises popping up on remote hillsides effectively operate “off the radar” so far as health and safety checks are concerned. Unlike the industry standard, these tin-pot affairs can’t run to an in-house team of surveyors, ventilation engineers etc, since the total personnel employed seldom exceeds a dozen miners.
Yet given the poverty and unemployment inflicted upon mining communities by pit closures, which is now being compounded by the acute economic crisis, these hole-in-corner enterprises have no trouble finding men desperate enough to tolerate such appalling working conditions.
Conditions have been rendered even more unstable thanks to the practice of stopping and starting production as the price of anthracite rises and falls on the market, with mines yo-yoing in and out of mothballs every few years. For capitalism, this is ‘flexibility’. For workers, it’s a nightmare.
What really happened at the Gleision mine may become clearer as the promised investigation goes forward – whitewash permitting. But it is already clear enough that this tragedy was just waiting to happen, just like all the accidents that have come in the wake of rail privatisation and all the MRSA outbreaks that came in the wake of outsourced hospital cleaning services.
It is for the coroner to establish the immediate cause of these unnecessary deaths, but the root cause is clear as daylight: the anarchy of capitalist production, in which profiteering takes precedence over all other considerations.