National Union of Mineworkers General Secretary Chris Kitchen fears that many of the miners who will walk away from Kellingley Colliery at the end of the month may find it difficult to adapt to life after coal.
Although Kitchen is confident the strong work ethic which runs through every miner will make them attractive to prospective new employers, he conceded some may initially struggle to come to terms with working practices in other industries.
“To some extent you become institutionalised because working in a coal mine is very different to the ‘real world’,” said Kitchen, who worked underground for 25 years at Kellingley and Wheldale near Castleford before becoming a full-time NUM officer.
“When you’re underground you are detached from the rest of the world: it’s not like a factory or an office where you can pop to the canteen and catch up with things or nip out to the shop in your lunch break.
“Miners act and speak in a way which is unique to them: they say things to each other that are accepted underground but which in any other walk of life might end up in a tribunal.
“Coal mining is a community in itself with its own hierarchy and its own way of treating people. For example a young man will join doing general duties and slowly progress to working at the coalface.
“Once he’s there he’ll be one of the big earners at the pit for good reason because it’s a dangerous, dirty job. Because of that his health will suffer: his lungs fill with dust, his hearing isn’t what it was and his back starts to hurt.
“From there he starts to go back towards doing what he did when he started at the pit. The other men respect him and look after him because they know he’s done his time.
“Now we have miners at various stages of that journey entering the job market. Employers will be interviewing men who know how to work hard but who aren’t as healthy as they should be because their back’s not right or they have a weak chest.
“The employer will look at candidates for the same job who haven’t worked down the pit and think this man won’t need as much looking after and hire him instead.
“We haven’t been in this situation before because previously when a pit has closed there’s always been the option of transferring. The Kellingley miners have specialised skills but nowhere to take them because theirs is the last pit.
“I don’t think there’s much that can be done: it’s up to the individual miners to make the most of it.
“Miners have never asked to be treated as a special case, we have only asked to be treated fairly.
“There isn’t a lot that Jobcentre Plus or local authorities can do to help with your health.
“A key role for the NUM now is benefits advice. There are benefits that miners are entitled to because of their health problems but which they are not equipped to get access to because of the nature of the benefits system.”
The closure of Kellingley casts uncertainty over the future of the NUM, which was founded in 1888 as the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. With few working members to represent, there is a view that the NUM has become an industrial anachronism.
Kitchen, however, disagrees.
“There is a move by certain people to wind up the union based on the misguided belief that they have the God-given right to sell everything, convert all the assets into cash and have a big share-out,” he said.
“That view doesn’t take into account the fact that the NUM continues to represent thousands of miners who used to work in the industry.
“Whilst our focus has always been prioritised on working members, we have always looked after retirees and it is important that that work continues
“Clearly there is a need to re-evaluate what we do and how we do it but it would be a mistake to stop doing the good work that we’ve done for the last 30 years and more