Coal miners in the west-Georgian town of Tkibuli have ended their protest after Economy Minister Natia Turnava announced that overdue salaries would be paid and that the mine would soon restart operations.
On 26 September, Turnava announced that a ‘new company’ would take over the coal mines in Tkibuli.
Speaking after the joint meeting with the current owners of the mine, Saknakhshiri, the new company, and workers, Turnava said that the new investor was a Georgian company that had ‘Ukrainian partners’ and ‘great experience extracting coal’.
Tamaz Dolaberidze, the Chair of the Metallurgy, Mining, and Chemical Sector Workers’ Union and Deputy Chair of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC), told OC Media that a Georgian company, Steel International Trade Company, and Ukrainian group Ukrspetstechnika would take over.
According to Dolaberidze, the new investor vowed to start paying overdue salaries, which workers were due to receive on 15 September, and to take on all unmet financial obligation to the families of Tkibuli miners killed or injured in the mine.
The GTUC had previously been critical of the Economy Ministry for not disclosing the findings of the audit conducted by Germany’s DMT Group into the mine last year. DMT was commissioned to assess if ensuring labour safety was feasible in Saknakhshiri’s mines.
After the announcement of the end of the protest, Dolaberidze told OC Media that he learnt from the meeting that DMT Group identified three critical inconsistencies in terms of workplace safety standards and that there were ‘three left’ to be addressed.
‘The company vowed to present an additional investment plan in October and renew extraction of coal in Tkibuli mine in November’, Dolaberidze said.
He also said it was a ‘nice surprise’ that representatives of Steel International Trade Company had promised to cooperate closely with the unions.
Turnava was dispatched to the town on Thursday by Prime Giorgi Gakharia to ‘solve the problem’. On the workers’ third day of protest on 26 September, Gakharia opened his cabinet meeting with a statement about the situation in Tkibuli, which he called ‘absolutely unacceptable’.
‘Whenever we have the possibility, we will stand besides business, but the employer and business must always consider their social responsibilities before our citizens and fully comply with them’, Gakharia stated in presence of journalists.
‘We are in debt. I had to pay a loan on 20 [September], which is ₾280 ($94). For today, the penalty interest is so much that even if I get my salary, all of it will be to cover the fines’, miner Shmagi Katamadze told BMG on Thursday.
Workers had complained that they faced having their gas and electricity cut off, and were unable to provide for their children properly by the start of the new school year.
‘Tkibuli is dead without the mine’
The previous government of Gakharia’s predecessor, Mamuka Bakhtadze, ordered that operations halt in all 25 shafts of the Mindeli Mine in Tkibuli in July 2018, after a series of fatal workplace accidents.
Since then, the miners have been on involuntary paid leave.
Following the deadly accident last summer, GIG proposed to hand over Saknakhshiri to the government, saying that they did not see any way to upgrade the safety conditions given the ‘specifics’ of the Tkibuli mine. The proposal was rejected by the government.
Since then, Saknakhshiri has conducted only ventilation and fire prevention operations in the mine shafts, employing some local workers to do so.
While a local miners initiative group and the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) agreed in the summer of 2018 to the suspension of the mine, they also insisted that safety conditions be improved so that the mine could re-open. They argued that it was the only source of income for residents of Tkibuli.
Tkibuli miners launched their protest on 24 September by occupying two mine shafts 300 metres below the ground. The workers refused to leave the shafts until their demands were met.
The miners also called on the government and the company to make clear if and when the mine would re-open.
[Read more on OC Media: Tkibuli miners occupy mine shaft demanding overdue salaries]
On their second day of protest, the miners announced a hunger strike and called on Gakharia to visit Tkibuli.
A day earlier, Saknakhshiri released a statement saying that they were facing financial problems and were in talks with the government ‘to find the solution together’.
Saknakhshiri, a subsidiary of Georgian Industrial Group (GIG), employees roughly 1,000 workers in Tkibuli.
‘Tkibuli is dead without the mine’, Lali Kakushadze, a small shop owner told Netgazeti on Thursday, after she and others closed their shops to join the workers in solidarity.
A group of miners in the manganese mine in the town of Chiatura and workers in the Zestaponi ferroalloy plant also joined the protest a day earlier.