The pits and the pendulum of time: As private mines take hold in South Wales, old ways resurface. Michael Prestage reports

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The Independent Online
AT THE END of a mile and a half of narrow tunnel, a solitary miner works at the coalface drilling, shovelling and tearing with his bare hands at the high quality anthracite that has made this part of South Wales famous.

He does not work for British Coal. If he is a member of the National Union of Mineworkers he is keeping it secret from company bosses. The methods and techniques he is using seem archaic. This is a privately owned pit: the future of coalmining.

In South Wales only one British Coal pit remains. Yet private licensed mines are enjoying a boom, with nearly 100 employing more than a thousand men. There is a rich seam of skilled British Coal labour for them to tap in the Valleys. After the 1984-85 miners' strike, there were 28 pits run by the old National Coal Board, employing 22,500. Tower Colliery, at Hirwaun, Mid Glamorgan, is the only one left. It employs 400.

Peter Hain, the Labour MP for Neath, has tabled an Early Day Motion in the Commons condemning the 'return of 19th-century working conditions to private licensed mines in my constituency'. His motion claims private mine owners are openly flouting employment law, contractual agreements with employees and cutting corners on health and safety provision.

The 28 former Coal Board miners working at Pentwyn, on the edge of the Black Mountains in West Glamorgan, see things rather differently. The work is hard, much harder than in a highly mechanised BC pit. But the rewards can be greater. The man shovelling at the coal face can earn more than pounds 500 a week - well above the pounds 210 basic rate for a face worker in a BC pit and a handsome sum in this part of Wales. However, he earns it the hard way, filling 50 metal tubs with three-quarters of a ton of coal each week, as well as clearing away the spoil. To add to the Dickensian feel, the laden trucks are pulled to the surface by pit ponies.

Rosemarie Griffiths, managing director of Welsh Dragon Limited, which owns two pits including Pentwyn, said old working methods were the only ones economically viable in small mines. An Australian with a background in the electronics industry, she was brought in by the company's new owners two years ago to save the business from collapse.

She said the health and safety record was good. And many of the antiquated restrictive practices inherited from the Coal Board had been swept away. 'If we get it right there is a future for coal, but we have to be competitive. Pentwyn is making money, and the jobs it creates are well paid, but the work is physical. Our mines are like corner shops compared to BC's superstores. We can't hope to run in the way they operate their mines.'

Her dispute with Peter Hain continues. She counters his claim about shortcuts being taken by citing improvements that have been made. Staff are all now consulted and all - from managing director to cleaner - will receive an equal share of a profit bonus scheme.

Working agreements have been abolished because, she believes, they have no place in a modern industry. British Coal gives seven rest days a year and has fixed holidays when pits close. Seven tons of concessionary coal a year are given to miners, even those with gas central heating. At Welsh Dragon all these perks have been abolished.

When 20 of her miners refused to work over Christmas, because it was traditionally a time when the pit closed, they were given warnings and then sacked. The NUM is backing six industrial tribunal cases. But there are now no union members in the company's mines.

Despite recent unrest, Les Thomas, deputy manager at Pentwyn, is enthusiastic about the future. 'Conditions are much better now than when I first went into private pits in the early 1970s. With the new company there have been a lot of changes very quickly, but they were needed. The men don't like changes, but they're not daft: if we had stayed as we were it would have closed.'

Welsh Dragon has also made clear its intention to bid for BC-owned Betws mine, three miles away, and there are other mines on Michael Heseltine's closure list that the company is interested in taking over and claims it has already secured financial backing from abroad.

A meeting is being arranged between Ms Griffiths and Tim Eggar, the coal minister, to discuss how the sale of pits will be handled. She believes that within five years BC will be completely privatised:'We have geared up for the opportunities that are about to arise.

It is an exciting time to be in the industry.'

Meanwhile, Mike Reynolds, lodge secretary at Betws and the NUM official responsible for licensed mines, is trying to persuade miners to join the union. If one man at a pit is a member, the NUM can send its engineers to carry out inspections. 'Safety costs money, and conditions in BC mines are far better than in the private sector. In licensed pits men must produce coal to earn money and shortcuts are taken,' he said.

(Photographs omitted)