Elena Maslova, 45, has spent most of her adult life operating an underground iron ore mine hoist in Kryviy Ryh, central Ukraine. She also defends workers rights and is an active member of the miner’s trade union.
Why did you choose to become a miner?
It wasn’t much of a choice, especially given that it was difficult to find a job in the 90s. When I was 17 years old, my mother fell ill and we had to use all of our family’s financial resources for her treatment. I felt responsible. So I got married shortly thereafter, my husband and I agreeing that I would continue my studies. Soon enough, he told me he was earning enough money and that I wouldn’t have to go on being a student.
After my mother died, my husband’s family stopped treating me the way they used to. They started using me, their daughter-in-law, as a labour force. I suffered through this for four and a half years before I turned around and left. I decided that I was an adult, that I could live on my own. I grew up in a household full of books, under the roof of an engineer and a teacher. So, after taking my decision, I worked in various different places, including an agent’s job reselling equipment.
I got pregnant with my son at 24 and I was so happy. It was a miracle, since I had been diagnosed with second-degree infertility before. Still, I decided to give birth even though I had a temporary job and scant financial resources. My younger sister was all grown up, so I had imagined we would somehow raise him together. But the older my son became the more I realised that, as a sales agent, there are no guarantees nor social support. That was the only time I asked my father for a favour.
[Elena’s father was also a miner and worked in the industry for 50 years. He participated in the development of the Raduga (Rainbow) system, a wireless communication tool set up in the mines that is still used today.]
What is it like down there in the mine?
A mine doesn’t like the weak, it squeezes them out. If a person is weak, they will usually leave after two years, or others make them leave. If you’re hysterical, people won’t tolerate you. You need to be able to make clear decisions and in the case of an emergency, understand what it is you’re doing. We get tested to see if we’re psychologically capable of doing the work.
But you stayed.
And I’ve been working [in mining] for almost 20 years now.
When you get used to making ends meet from unstable incomes, you start craving the idea of stability. It becomes important. Mining gives me that and, through this job, I paid for my utilities, a kindergarten for my son, food… The money the government gave to single mothers a while ago was close to nothing. That, and the fact that in 1999 you couldn’t get a state-owned heavy industry job without connections, is why I asked my father for a favour. He helped me study for the hoist operator job. I wanted to work underground straight away.
“A mine doesn’t like the weak, it squeezes them out.”
What did you expect from the job and what did you find when you started?
I was shocked when I started working there. Without completing an internship as most beginners do, I got a permanent position straight away. People who had already been working there wondered who got me the job, who I was sleeping with. My friends would tell me that only “prostitutes” worked in mines. On the first day, my boss shouted at me in front of my future co-workers. Eventually we built a good working relationship, but in that moment I knew that dude was wrong to do so.
Every day I take miners, equipment and materials up and down the 1,575 metre-deep shaft. The working conditions are tough. I’m a small cog in a big machine, but I’m useful. I know it’s not a very important job but when you send down materials, transport a miner on time so that the workers can get their job done and get their day’s pay… I don’t know where else I could see the instant fruit of my labour.
How did you become a trade union activist?
It happened a few years after I started my job in the mine. An employee should know their rights and feel equipped enough to make a complaint to the boss. For me, Ukrainian mines are all about class struggle. I say to my co-workers: “Have you ever thought about the fact that, for more than 20 years, we’ve had a class of oligarchs, a poor class, a middle class, but no one seems to remember that there’s a working class? We don’t exist, we just disappeared.”
Nothing has changed for workers since Ukraine gained independence. What has changed is the depth of the mine. We’re on a road to nowhere and won’t have a future as a working class unless we wake up. After the Maidan revolution, we started arguing with other miners from our trade union. Half of them are coal miners and they said: “When Putin comes, he will bring order.” I told them that they reminded me of serfs [in feudalism], they were just waiting for the master to come and judge us.
Why can’t they get rid of this mentality?
It’s been a habit for many years. So many Ukrainians were shot down and all of that trauma is kept inside. Resistance is natural, you just have to resist in a different way. Communism is not coming back and we should learn how to defend ourselves. If we don’t, they will milk us and take advantage of us.
A year and a half ago I went to court without a lawyer to demand compensation for a work injury and won. For me, fighting is an incentive; I see it as a sort of competition.
I know that I have to protect myself and I’m not afraid of anything.
When we lift miners up with fatal injuries, all operations stop. We wait and call for medical help. That’s when you want to hug your co-workers, cry and promise them that they will survive. I’ve handled many death cases in the mine, so I can’t even remember losing this sense of fear.
Our mine used to be named after Lenin. One day, the workers were laughing and said: “Whose mine is this? It’s Lena’s mine.”
What changes have you experienced in the country after the Maidan revolution?
Life became easier to a certain extent. There were reforms.
But in Ukraine, the system isn’t in favour of workers. For example, I earn a ridiculously low salary: 4,200 UAH [about 135 Euros] per month. The owners of the mine continue to buy new general equipment but never renew things like beams, winches and other additional equipment that I work with. They take all they can get from us. Whereas I used to be able to retire at 45, now I’ll only be able to do so when I’m 50. The state has violated my rights.
So there are no politicians representing you?
“Women from FEMEN who run around naked and protest, what’s their message?”
Do you have any female role models? Who could guide you? Who do you look up to?
Not in the long run. How can I focus on someone else’s values when I have my own? If we take politicians, Angela Merkel is a clever and amazing woman. Margaret Thatcher, despite being criticised, is a phenomenal women. We will never have these kinds of politicians. To start with, you need to have remarkable character traits, be willing to self-sacrifice and have a strong will. Our people are made to steal, and whoever gets into politics will end up stealing. Oh, and Mother Teresa of course! Such a small woman but so much strength…
So you are a feminist.
I’ve never been a submissive or dependent woman. I’m against domostroi [the traditional vision of a family] and the separation of duties. If two people work, love and respect each other, they’ll find a way to make life easier for one another. If you have a potential slave working for your salary, then it’s not a union. I refuse to let anyone pay for me, it’s just the way I was raised. My mother was like that, so was my grandmother and great-grandmother.
This is what you call a ‘conscious life’. People who live consciously are men and women, they are not feminists. This is what a sound, normal adult looks like. I don’t think it’s right to put a label on an adult’s personality. You can engage in various activities, but everything should be within reasonable limits. Women from FEMEN who run around naked and protest, for example, all they do is make people smile. What’s their message?
What do you think about the #MeToo movement and the #I’mNotAfraidToSay campaign in Ukraine?
I didn’t participate but some of my friends did. In Europe and the U.S. there are different systems, different legislative frameworks. Our women don’t turn to law enforcement agencies for help because nothing will happen.
Before I started working at the mine, I was asked questions like: “Do you plan to give birth?” or “Do you want to get married?” It was asked as a joke but I was shocked. Still, I’ve been working for a long time and I don’t know of a single woman who has been harassed in the mine. Our men are great; they don’t offend the women and they are rarely rude. Sure, [sometimes] they joke around, but it’s normal. The working conditions are harsh and they get nervous. For the most part, I just learn how to respond well and deflate the situation.
What do you think is the most important change to be made on a European level to improve women’s conditions?
On the legislative level, there is nothing more to be done. Consciousness and real changes will only happen with time. When there’s a rotten justice system, it’s deplorable for women and men everywhere. What I mean is courts where sentences aren’t given for decades, where there is a lack of judges who specialise in labour laws, etc. The same goes for evidence-based discrimination… The courts have to have easy access to ordinary people, and right now that’s not the case.
Many are leaving to find work in Europe, including your colleagues…
Where you’re born is where you’re most needed. I can’t leave the people closest to me. My son. I can’t go and work – even legally – thousands of kilometres away, knowing that my own flesh and blood is somewhere on the frontline.
They don’t want us there, either. When Ukraine opened its borders, a crowd of hungry and well-trained workers entered European labour markets, ready to work for low wages and no social support. Do European workers really want that?
What do you think about the European perspective on Ukraine in general?
For a long time, I’ve been saying that we can never be Europe. We have a different mentality. Corruption is deeply-rooted…
Do you have the means to travel?
No, I don’t have enough money to. I’ve actually never travelled and I don’t even have a foreign passport. I wouldn’t mind going abroad but it’s not my goal. Still, if I see the Louvre, I will die happy.
So your life belongs here?
My life is my life. If I change my mind tomorrow, trust me, I will find both the opportunities and resources to see the world. Nothing is impossible, but I have to want it. I’d love to just lay in a hammock, garden and plant flowers. Like American housewives, I would join a parent’s association in the neighbourhood to keep myself busy and chat with my friends. And have a man or a woman by my side. I don’t know, maybe I would fall in love with a woman…