Leen Roels Leen Roels Eddy Daniëls

Migrants and women underground

In Culture
Written by  Femke Kools Tuesday, 15 April 2014 11:06

PhD thesis on shortage of miners in Liège coal industry

In the late 1960s, 70% of miners in Liège came from abroad. “That was twice the proportion in the Belgian Limburg mines and almost five times more than in Dutch Limburg”, says Leen Roels. She recently obtained her PhD at Maastricht University for her research on the structural shortage of miners in the Liège coal industry. Her thesis addresses not just the use of migrant workers, but also the participation of women in the Liège mines. Until now, little was known about this either. “From an emancipation perspective, the prohibition on women working underground was actually a step backwards.”

In the years after the Second World War, over 12,000 Italians descended on Liège to fill the shortage of miners. Partly as a result, the percentage of foreign workers rose to 50% in 1948, climbing further still to 70% in the early 1970s. They were sorely needed: the mines had become an increasingly unpopular workplace among Belgian workers, a trend that can be traced back to the late 19th century in Liège. By contrast, in the same period the mines in both Dutch and Belgian Limburg managed to attract and retain large populations of local miners.


“Work in the mines was regarded as dirty, heavy, unsafe and unhealthy”, says Roels, a historian. “In the Liège basin it was even harder than usual, because the easier coal seams had already been exhausted. The mining industry in Liège was among the oldest of its kind in Europe. In this sense, it was subject to the ‘handicap of a head start’, as it is known: an initial advantage that turns into a long-term disadvantage. This concerned not only the industrial process, which was difficult to mechanise, but also the area of human resources. People had long been accustomed to the fact that, generation upon generation, sons would follow their fathers into the mining industry. But by the 19th century, other industries had emerged in Liège – more so than in Limburg – as alternatives to the mines. In addition, Liège women used birth control, which resulted in fewer young people entering the labour market. Finally, the Liège mining companies failed to invest enough in the sort of occupational training that the Limburg mines used to retain permanent groups of miners. HR policies in Limburg tended to give local miners an advantage over foreign ones. I found very little evidence of active policies of this kind in Liège.” 


The economist Professor Hans Kasper, a member of Roels’s PhD assessment committee, therefore attributed the shortage of miners in Liège to mismanagement. “He considered it poor HR management. I think there are some mitigating circumstances. The scale in Dutch and Belgian Limburg was very different; there you had large mining companies with a few thousand employees. So you could certainly task a few people with coming up with a good HR policy.
The companies in Liège were much smaller; in the mid-19th century there were still around a hundred of them, and they were more likely to be competitors than collaborators. What you could accuse them of is a lack of long-term vision, given that after the First World War it became clear that the demand for miners was only going to increase.”

Although foreign miners were seen as less reliable than local ones, they provided a solution to the problem. Employment agreements between governments saw the arrival in Belgium of successively larger groups of Italians, Eastern Europeans, Spaniards, Greeks, Moroccans, Turks, Tunisians and Algerians. “These countries had a surplus of unemployed people and, in the case of Italy, a shortage of coal. The employment agreements included housing and other provisions for the duration of their stay here. They still had to learn the profession, and sometimes they took off quickly when they learned it wasn’t for them after all, or when the agreements were not honoured. Still, my research shows that one group of miners were indeed less trustworthy in the eyes of the employers: those who commuted to Liège from elsewhere in Belgium. They tended to change employers more quickly.”

Personal files

These movements are not only described at macro level, but can also be seen in the individual stories of the miners. Roels reconstructed the careers of hundreds of miners using their personal files, including 107 women. “I’ve analysed the work books of all these women. Until the late 19th century you had to have a book in which your employer recorded when you started work and when you left, plus any other comments. Using these I was able to identify the age at which women typically started working in the mines – around 13 – how long they worked there on average, and so on.” The goal of the research was to reconstruct the history of the mine workers on both a macro and a micro level. “I find it interesting to see how people’s behaviour gives rise to historical developments. Sometimes it seems as through people are just pulled along by the current, when in fact people themselves create that current. Had so many Belgian miners not turned their backs on their profession, there wouldn’t have been such a pressing need for so many migrant workers.”


The exclusion of women from underground mining from 1892 had an impact at not only a micro level, but also the macro level. In 1880 there were still 1700 women out of a total of 22,000 miners in the Liège mines, both above and below ground. “The documents sometimes don’t even make the distinction; apparently it wasn’t worthy of note. In 1846, 13% of mine workers in Belgium were women. In contrast, women at the Limburg mines never worked underground. The employment rate of women in Belgium – still high today – was the highest in Western Europe in the late 19th century. They took a relatively equal share in that work, so prohibiting underground work for women was actually a step backwards in terms of emancipation. In England it had been prohibited as early as 1842, half a century earlier. Women who wore trousers and worked underground with men – that just wouldn’t do. In liberal Belgium, business apparently took precedence.”


Roels has worked as content coordinator for the Mining Heritage platform in Genk since 2012. “I couldn’t let that opportunity get away – it fits with my research so perfectly.” It was also one reason her PhD research took the better part of a decade. Her knowledge of mining history has developed from nil to expert, crowned by the publication of her thesis ‘The shortage’. “I think it’s important to understand more about the past, and I notice that there’s a large audience for heritage issues. They bind communities and serve as a rich breeding ground for the arts. And when it comes to contemporary migration, I think we can learn something from the history of migration. The Liège mines could not have survived without the commitment of these migrant workers.”

Leen Roels defended her PhD thesis ‘Het tekort – Studies over de arbeidsmarkt voor mijnwerkers in het Luikse kolenbekken vanaf het einde van de negentiende eeuw tot 1974’ (‘The shortage: Studies on the labour market for miners in the Liège coal basin from the late 19th century until 1974’) at Maastricht University on Thursday 3 April. Her research was supervised by Professor Ad Knotter. Roels currently works as the content coordinator of the Mining Heritage platform in Genk.




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