POLAND –The lower house of the Polish parliament, the Sejm, is debating a proposal to end mine workers’ right to retire on a full pension after 25 years of work whatever their age.

The debate follows violent demonstrations by an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 miners outside parliament yesterday that was dispersed by riot police using water cannon and tear gas.

The clashes have heightened the political temperature before a general election to be held at the end of September and a presidential election in early October.

Miners have traditionally enjoyed a privileged status in Poland, having been lauded as working class aristocracy by the pre-1989 communist regime.

The government proposal is part of an overhaul of pre-pension arrangements and is due to come into effect at the end of 2006. It would have the effect of assisting measures to scale down for the heavily indebted coal sector and to cut budgetary expenditure as the government struggles to meet the economic conditions necessary to adopt the euro.

According to local press reports, the total debt of the Polish coal sector amounts to PLN6.3bn (€1.5bn), of which PLN4.1bn is in short-term liabilities, after PLN18bn of debt was written off at the end of last year.

The BBC has quoted government officials as say continuing the miners' current retirement rights would cost the country 26bn zlotys (€6.3bn) over five years.

The miners are demanding that all workers in their sector be granted pension rights after 25 years employment whatever their age, claiming that the application of the general labour regulations requiring employees to work until the age of 65 would mean that statistically most would die before retirement.

Parliamentary speaker and presidential candidate Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz has rejected the miners’ call for exemption from the law but offered to consider continuing early retirement benefits to underground colliery workers while excluding those working at ground level, including ground crews, office staff and trade union officials.

It is estimated that such a proposal would cut the costs of early retirement by three-quarters.

However, given the pre-electoral timing of the debate and the protests there are doubts that the government will be able to hold the line.

“Being in a pre-electoral period is very bad for such a delicate matter,” said Marek Góra, a professor at the Warsaw School of Economics and a pensions specialist. “It is a very bad development.”