June 8, 2020 / 7:56 AM / a month ago

Poland halts work at 12 coal mines to curb COVID-19, angering union

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland will close 12 coal mines from Tuesday for three weeks to curb the spread of the coronavirus among miners, Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin said on Monday.

FILE PHOTO: General view of Wujek Coal Mine at sunset in Katowice, Poland October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

Miners account for almost 20% of coronavirus cases reported in Poland. But the Solidarity trade union denounced the move, saying it would lead to permanent closures as the nationalist government was already planning to restructure the industry.

Two mines operated by state-run JSW and 10 mines owned by PGG group will close for three weeks, Sasin said. All are in Silesia, a mining region which accounted for over half of the new 599 coronavirus cases reported in Poland on Monday.

“Such action is needed to eventually quell these epidemic outbreaks,” Sasin told a news conference, adding that miners would receive full pay for the three weeks and coal deliveries would not be affected.

Solidarity said the decision by the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government “will in truth lead to the closing of these workplaces,” and questioned why certain mines were being closed when they had fewer cases of coronavirus than others.

The state assets ministry later issued a statement reiterating that the mines would “return to normal operation” after three weeks and denied there would be any job losses.

CORONAVIRUS EXACERBATES PROBLEMS

Poland generates most of its electricity from coal, despite pressure from the European Union to switch to cleaner energy. The coronavirus has exacerbated problems facing the Polish coal industry, and a restructuring plan is expected to be announced by the government in coming weeks.

Shares in JSW, the EU’s biggest coking coal producer, initially slumped 10% as investors expected that the Zofiowka and Pniowek mines, which suffered the highest number of cases and dig mostly higher-value coking coal, would be the ones to close.

But the state assets ministry later confirmed the mines that would close would be JSW’s Knurow-Szczyglowice and Budryk mines, which produce mostly thermal coal. JSW shares closed down 9%.

The PGG mines that will close do not include those with the highest number of infections. But PGG’s Wujek coal mine, which sources said this month was likely be permanently shut as part of the restructuring, will be among those closing.

Sasin said workers at the mines that will be closed had yet to be fully tested for COVID-19.

Poland has reported 27,160 coronavirus cases and 1,166 deaths.

Additional reporting by Wojciech Zurawski, Anna Koper and Joanna Plucinska; Editing by Kirsten Donovan, Susan Fenton and Timothy Heritage

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