Industry in decline

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In 1920, one and a quarter million British men worked down the pits. The figure today is only 18,000. This is not simply a British development. All over Europe mining industries are a fraction of the size they once were.

There are just over 100,000 miners in Western Europe now, a fifth of the number in 1970. Mechanisation reduced the need for staff, as did cheap foreign coal. Electricity companies, once major users of coal, turned to (much cheaper) gas to run their generators. Technological advance removed the need for coal to heat homes or support industry, much of which has changed from manufacturing to services.

In Spain, coal mining employs only half the number of people it did just seven years ago. France too has experienced a sharp decline in an industry in which several generations of a family could once be assured of a job.

The German coal industry had fared better until recent years, because of an agreement between the mining companies and the government, which did its best to ensure that pit closures would not lead to mass unemployment.

This seems to have succeeded; the unemployment rate in Germany 11 per cent, and is slightly lower in the mining areas. Germany now has the lion's share of Europe's miners, with 78,000, though this is projected to fall by a half by 2005.

Belgium has seen the end of its coal industry. In 1970 it employed 25,000 miners out of a population of about 8 million. All its pits are now closed. All the above figures include only those people who actually work as miners. "For every person employed in open-cast or colliery mines in Britain, there are another two working in support industries such as equipment manufacturing, driving and management," says Stewart Oliver of British mining giant RJB Mining.

This is a view supported by the European Solid Fuels Association. Its director, Jean van der Stichelen, said: "The total number of staff in mining, including surface people and clerks, is roughly one and a half or two times the number of miners." Even so, this means the total is about 250,000 throughout Europe; the same number as worked underground in Britain only 20 years ago.