Workers from the Tkibuli coal mine in western Georgia have occupied a mine shaft demanding overdue pay. The miners, who have been on involuntary paid leave since mining activities were suspended in July 2018, were also asking for answers over if and when the mine would re-open.
Around 30 coal miners entered the Mindeli and Dzidziguri shafts in Tkibuli on Tuesday morning.
Other mine workers gathered outside the shaft to join the protest, later moving to the town hall. They said that kindergartens, schools, and shops in the town would join them the next day unless their demands were met.
On Monday evening, workers released an open letter to Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia saying Tkibuli was ‘on the verge of mass protest rallies’.
‘We do not exclude the possibility of radical developments if our demands are not met’, they said.
They said they were currently in a ‘total information vacuum’ regarding the mine’s future.
The Georgian Trade Union of Metallurgy, Mining, and Chemical Industry Workers broke the news of the protest and expressed support for the workers. The harshly criticised Georgian Industrial Group (GIG), which owns the mine, for leaving workers without pay on the eve of the start of the school term.
GIG, a company with operations in energy, natural gas, and real estate, employs roughly 1,000 workers, mostly in Tkibuli, through Saknakhshiri, a subsidiary.
The general director of GIG is Davit Bezhuashvili, a former MP from the United National Movement Party, while his brother, Gela Bezhuashvili, who served as Georgia’s foreign minister in 2005–2008, sits on GIG’s board of directors.
According to the Mining Workers Union, the penalty interest on workers’ overdue bank loans was continuing to pile on and with no money to cover utility bills, they faced having their gas and electricity cut off.
Later on Tuesday, Saknakhshiri released a statement saying that the company was facing ‘real financial problems’ and that they had previously informed workers about this. He said that the company was in talks with the government to find a solution.
Georgia’s fatal mines on pause
The Miners’ Union called on the Georgian government to ‘immediately mobilise financial resources to pay salaries to Tkibuli workers’.
‘The company and the government should also inform the miners what their plans are regarding the restarting of coal mining’, they said.
The Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC), of which the Miners’ Union is a member, slammed the Georgian government in a statement on Tuesday for failing to examine and improve the conditions in the Tkibuli mines, a prerequisite for the renewal of operations.
The mines in Tkibuli have seen several life-altering and fatal accidents in recent years, ultimately leading to halting of operations last year. In 2017–2018, 17 workers perished in the mines.
In 2017, four miners were killed in the Mindeli shaft after a lift fell; the accident was followed by a rally in Tbilisi condemning the lack of safety for workers.
In April last year, a coal shaft collapse killed six more workers and injured three, prompting a group of local miners to demand the Mindeli Mine halt operations until safety conditions improved.
A month later, an explosion in the Mindeli shaft and the resulting roof collapse killed four more and left six injured.
Following the accident in July, the Georgian government under then-Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze immediately ordered that operations of the Mindeli Mine be shut down.
The government sealed all 25 shafts and went after six members of the Mindeli shaft management, prosecuting them for negligence.
The shutdown made led some miners to fear they would lose their only source of income, and several of them gathered in front of the mine demanding that operations restart.
The 24 September protest was second since the mine shut down.
Saknaskhiri continued to pay miners’ salaries for three months after the shutdown, before announcing in early November that they were no longer able to do so.
The miners responded by occupying the Mindeli shaft and protesting in front of the city administration; leading the company to reverse their decision within a day.
A ‘catastrophic’ choice
Rights groups have been critical of Georgia’s mining sector for the lack of safety measures, also levelling the blame on the government for a lack of safety regulations.
The day after four workers were killed on 16 July 2018, then-Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili remarked that ‘the choice between the options of dying of hunger outside the shaft or descending into mine and dying is catastrophic’.
In their August report, Human Rights Watch criticised Georgia for a lack of workplace safety regulations and urged the government to ratify and implement the International Labour Organisation conventions on occupational health and safety, health in mines, and hours of work in the industry.
[Read more on OC Media: Human Rights Watch calls on Georgia’s government to end dangerous mining practices]
After the government suspended the Tkibuli mines last summer, GIG offered to hand over the Saknakhshiri mining company along with the Tkibuli mines to the government, saying there were no viable safety solutions due to ‘specificities’ of the mine.
The government under then–PM Mamuka Bakhtadze rejected the proposal.
On 24 September, the GTUC said that Germany’s DMT Group had concluded an audit to assess if ensuring labour safety was feasible in Saknakhshiri’s mines, but there has been no follow-up since then from the government.