Bosnia’s last female miners

Hata Muratović Hasanspahić is one of the last women working at the Breza coal mine. Her retirement in 2018, after over 30 years of service, along with that of her female colleagues, will bring an end to a gender equality experiment launched during the Yugoslav era. Breza, 27 November 2017. (Jelena Prtoric)

As a result of gender equity in the workplace policies, the workplace has changed. The policies promote the notion that females are just as capable of performing the same tasks in the workplace as males and therefore they should also be fairly represented in all sectors of the economy including mining. But, this has come with its own challenges especially in mining.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

“First you feel a strong pressure in your ears. Then it’s the darkness, complete darkness, that surprises you. It takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dim light of the lamps. Finally, there’s that smell, it’s hard to describe.”

Hata Muratović Hasanspahić no longer notices the darkness, or the smell. She has spent 33 years going down into the bowels of the earth, surrounded by noisy machinery and explosives, and breathing in the smell of sulphur in the Breza coal mine in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Breza, a town with approximately 17,000 inhabitants, around 20 kilometres from Sarajevo, was built up around the coal mine, opened in 1907 by Austria-Hungary, when Bosnia-Herzegovina was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Documents from the period refer to the particularly tough working conditions, but also to the road infrastructure developed and the buildings erected.

The mine saw its heyday during the time of socialist Yugoslavia, founded at the end of the Second World War. Miners became one of the symbols of the new working class, showing their devotion to their country through their work.

The mines were competing with each other at the time to extract the largest amounts of coal possible, and the Breza mine was able to boast of having the most productive worker.

In 1949, Alija Sirotanović’s crew in Breza extracted 152 tonnes of coal in eight hours, beating the record set in 1935 by Russian miner Alexey Stakhanov by 50 tonnes. This world record in coal mining took on even greater significance having coincided with the moment when Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Broz Tito, broke the cultural and political ties between Yugoslavia and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

When received by Tito, who offered him the reward of his choice for his work, the valiant miner responded that all he wanted was “a larger shovel”.

It was also at that time that the village of Breza was turning into a truly industrial town. Large numbers of engineers and workers from all across the country went to live in Breza. There were restaurants, schools, a cinema. The mining company built apartments for its employees and paid for their holidays on the Croatian coast every summer.

The mine, a man’s world

The year 1980 saw the opening of the first technical college in the town of Breza and the company offered students grants and a guaranteed job at the end of their studies.

Hata, who was of mining stock – her father and grandfather where miners – was won over by the promise, and did not hesitate for a moment. In 1984, she became one of the first women to enter the Breza mine. In her class of 42 students, 23 were girls and 19 were boys.

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“We would hear people say it wasn’t a woman’s job: ‘What will we do with all these women in the mine?’, they would say,” recalls Hata, sitting in her office, wearing dark blue work overalls. Her blonde hair is short and loose, her face smooth and smiling. She looks younger than her 51 years.

Hata started working on 18 October 1984 as an explosives technician. She works one long day after another, covering tens of kilometres underground, sometimes with the first shift of the day, which starts at seven in the morning, and sometimes late in the evening. Her workplace is a maze of underground tunnels and corridors filled with explosives. Most of her colleagues are men.

“In the beginning, the men would often turn to look when they heard my voice, a female voice. They weren’t used to it. But they ended up accepting us as equals. We would always have our meals together, sitting on the floor, dirty, drenched in sweat, with the rats running around us. We are all equal, underground,” says Hata.

Completely equal? The women are confronted with specific problems, Hata concedes, such as cleaning up on leaving the mine. Hata ended up cutting her long hair, which used to reach her waist, because she was “no longer able to take care of it with the pace of the work”.

Another challenge is having to go for eight hours without being able to go to the toilet. Because there are no designated toilets in the corridors of a mine: the men manage, and the women get used to drinking less water.

It was, above all, the war years following the breakup of Yugoslavia that marked Hata the most. The mine was the target of daily bombings. And yet Breza had to keep operating, to supply coal to the neighbouring power station, which provided the city of Sarajevo with electricity.

Although her husband was on the front line and she was pregnant with her son, Hata carried on going to work everyday.

“I was afraid, of course. But there was nothing we could do about it: we had to keep on working and hope that we would survive,” she sighs.

“A good job”

Although the mine never returned to its former glory after the war, it is still the town’s leading employer.

“Around 90 per cent of the electricity consumed in Bosnia-Herzegovina is produced thanks to coal. Fortunately, Bosnia’s soil is rich in high quality black coal,” explains the mine’s director, Ćamil Zaimović.

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“In Breza, we produce around 700,000 tons of exploitable coal, which amounts to a turnover of 40 to 45 million convertible marks (€20 to 22 million),” adds Zaimović. Its main market is domestic, as it cannot be exported to the European market due to environmental regulations.

In 2009, Breza – together with six other coal mines in the country – became part of the public energy group Elektroprivreda Bosne i Hercegovine.

State management is seen as a guarantee of security and work in the mine is still considered to be much better than in most businesses in town.

After the fall of Yugoslavia and the arrival of the market economy to Bosnia-Herzegovina, many state-owned companies based in Breza closed down.

“At the Breza mine, at least you know your wage will be paid into your account every month. And the pay is better than in the private sector. You have paid holidays, you receive your contributions. In private companies, you never know whether you’ll be paid at the end of the month. And you can be fired from one day to the next,” says Hata.

The last women in the pits

In the future, however, this work will be reserved for men. Breza still has its mining college, and there are girls who study there, but they will no longer find work in the mine.

“Yugoslavia had women working in the pits for ideological reasons. Spending the whole day underground is not women’s work,” says Ćamil Zaimović.

The miners going into retirement will be replaced by men only, as labourers at first, doing the most physically demanding tasks, before going on, after several years, to reach the status of mining technician.

No more than 10 women are left out of the 1250 employees at the Breza mine. They now work as ventilation, safety or quality control officers and no longer have to go down into the pit every day.

Some have seized the opportunity to change jobs, with “easier” hours and tasks mainly done above ground. Others have taken on administrative posts, such as Indira Buluburišić, now the director’s secretary, whose hand was crushed in an accident at work.

Hata is retiring at the beginning of 2018, and is looking forward to it. “I want to take it easy, at last!” she says, laughing.

“I’ve earned my living in the mine, I built my house thanks to the mine, and soon I’ll have my pension. It was an exhausting job, but I have no regrets.”

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