Chaudhry highlights grievances of mineworkers

  • 1st April 2006
  • 2006
  • // Display comment count + link

Opposition Leader Mahendra Chaudhry said Vatukoula mine workers had long standing grievances regarding pay, safety working and housing conditions, environmental concerns that should to be addressed.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Fiji Mineworkers Union yesterday Chaudhry said safety of miners was a serious concern which had not been addressed by the SDL government.

“All governments have a duty to ensure safety at the mines. Failure to do so is a dereliction of duty and has to be taken very seriously”, he said. The full text of the Leader of the Opposition’s speech follows:

“As a person who has spent the best part of his career pursuing the interests of and dealing with workers, it gives me immense pleasure to be here with you today.

The Fiji Mine Workers Union and the Vatukoula gold mines have always been a special interest case for us both as unionists and politicians.

I, of course, have a long history of association with Tavua and Vatukoula. My links with Vatukoula go back to the early days. Many of you may not be aware that my first job was at the Emperor Gold Mines as a research lab assistant – I left after a year later to join the civil service in the Audit Department in Suva.

But then in 1978, as a trade unionist, I was appointed one of a three-member inquiry team to investigate conditions at the Mine – pays, working environment, housing etc.

So my links to Vatukoula and the Mines go back a long way, some 30 years… indeed, even further back considering that I was born here and that my father ran a regular bus service in Tavua at the time.

Yes, I have an old attachment to your workplace and home town. That does not mean that I like what I see or what is happening to the workers here.

In 1978, I was very upset to see the extent of worker exploitation that was taking place at the mines, and the general social condition of the workers. These impressions have stayed with me over time.

It pains me to realise that not much has changed over these intervening years. You still suffer from the same old grievances – low pays, appalling working conditions and environment, rundown housing, unsafe drinking water – to mention a few.

Ours was one of the first inquiries into working and living conditions at the mines. Since then there have been several – all unfavourable – all highlighting the same basic problems I have mentioned.

Emperor Gold Mines has been operational for 70-long years in Fiji …it has become institutionalised, almost a part of our heritage. Yet, it continues to show a worrying lack of social responsibility towards its workers and the town in which it is based.

I notice the recent Oxfam report raises the same age-old issues. It recommends that Emperor, and I quote:

Acknowledges its responsibility to address the environmental and social issues that are a legacy of the Vatukoula mine in Fiji.

With these words, the report underscores the fact that the company has a duty, a social responsibility to look after its workers and to ensure their well being.

More specifically, the Oxfam report goes on to recommend a living wage for the workers, ensure safety at the mines and calls for an inquiry to be conducted into environmental pollution and health risks to workers.

What I want to tell you today is that as workers you have your rights which are enshrined in the Constitution.

Section 33 of the Constitution ensures that every worker enjoys the right to fair labour practices including humane treatment and proper working conditions.

In view of this, you certainly have legitimate grievances which need to be addressed.

But first let me say how pleased I am that you have revived the Mineworkers Union and that the union has already made an impact in the manner in which it successfully negotiated recent grievances with the company.

I refer of course to the crisis created by Emperor’s decision to make redundant close to 400 workers on the pretext that the increase in global oil prices had led to escalating costs which had to be contained.

This is surprising given the fact that the company enjoys significant concessions from government in terms of fuel costs. It pays no duty on fuel imports.

This concession was granted in return for a commitment by the company that it would maintain employment levels.

Now, 400 workers laid off one go is a very big number. Particularly at a time when gold prices are at an all-time high. I am surprised that the SDL government put no pressure on EGM to review its decision.

But your union took strong action threatening a strike unless the company reviewed its stand on 141 members who were laid off. Following this, it successfully negotiated the reinstatement of 55 miners. The other 86 agreed to accept a redundancy package offered by the company.

The sad fate of the rest of the 233 members who were laid off, shows how important it is for workers to be unionised. The 233 who were not reinstated were non-union members. I feel sorry for them because I know that they have families to feed and children to send to school. But they had the choice to join the union and they did not.

The crisis you have just emerged from was a real test of the strength of your union and I am proud that you successfully negotiated your way through it. You have also won a pay increase through some hard bargaining. All of this augurs well for the future of your union.

However, this is just the beginning. I know that you have a whole list of genuine grievances that must be addressed urgently.

The most crucial among them is safety at the mines. We are seriously concerned that there have been three deaths at the mine in just one year. Apart from this, there have been hundreds of injuries, some of them quite serious, through accidents. A number of these accidents were due to the company’s laxity in enforcing safety codes and poor safety practices underground.

We are equally concerned at the failure of the authorities to investigate these deaths and accidents at the mine. At the time of fatalities and accidents a lot is heard about an investigation but eventually everything fizzles out. If investigations are ever completed, they are not made public.

All governments have a duty to ensure safety at the mines. Failure to do so is a dereliction of duty and has to be taken very seriously.

The lengthy delay in processing compensation payments is another major grievance. It is sad that life should be taken so lightly. There is a human factor to these things that almost always seem to be neglected. There are families and dependents who are usually left without any source of income when a miner dies. It is cruel and inhumane to keep these families waiting because it merely intensifies their suffering and hardship.

I am aware that the mining laws are grossly outdated and need to be reviewed. Currently, there is no Occupational Health and Safety regulations governing the mining industry. The general OHS does not apply to mine workers because government says miners come under the Ministry of Mineral Resources.

This is absolutely ridiculous. All matters relating to conditions of labour and the health and safety of workers should come under the Labour Ministry. I do not see why there are exceptions to the rule.

Mining is an extremely dangerous and hazardous occupation. It is intolerable that there is no OHS governing the mining industry.

The environment is another major concern. Despite surveys and reports that show high contamination of drinking water, and of rivers and creeks from waste and other effluence from the mine, nothing has been done to deal with this serious health risk.

USP research has shown unsafe levels of mercury and cadmium in water samples taken from the Nasivi River which is the main source of drinking water for the Vatukoula settlement. There have also been reports of bacterial contamination of the river water.

The drinking water used by the Vatukoula settlement is not treated or chlorinated and poses a major health hazard to residents. It is absolutely unthinkable that any government would allow this.

It is well known that effluence from the mine has killed river life and, consequently, destroyed an important source of food for many villagers. Food crops have been contaminated by sulphur from the mines – this is clearly visible in discolouration to leaves and plants in the area.

How the company could have been allowed to get away with such irresponsible behaviour is absolutely unthinkable?

It is more than obvious we have a government in office that makes a lot of noise about its commitment to people, the indigenous Fijian community in particular, but takes no action to ensure their health and lives are not endangered by the anti-social and anti-environmental practices of companies that operate in Fiji.

You have my assurances that a Labour government will take firm and urgent steps to deal with all these problems both environmental and social.

We will as a matter of priority make appropriate amendments to the current Mining Act and more specifically to the Occupational Health and Safety regulations to ensure that mining operations are fully covered.

We will review the current Workmen’s Compensation Act to raise the current maximum payout of $24,000 in compensation to more realistic levels. This is totally unacceptable.

It is atrocious that the life of a fully able bodied person is merely tagged at $24,000. We will speed up the processing of payments.

There will also have to be an environmental impact study to identify the possible adverse effects of mining on the environment and the residents of Vatukoula.

In the final analysis, Emperor must be commended for its contribution to the economy of Fiji and for providing much-needed employment to our people in the 70 years of its operations here. It is also heartening to note that it is now consulting more closely with your union on its plans to restructure the operations.

However, there are a number of long standing grievances of the workers that appear to have received no attention from the company. These have to be addressed and a fair solution found.

The company has been changing hands fairly rapidly and so has its top management. This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and instability regarding EGM’s operations which is not very healthy.

We are also concerned that while it is claiming declining profits in Fiji and cutting down on employment, the company is extending its operations to Papua New Guinea.

Emperor has received very favourable treatment from the Fiji government in terms of tax holidays and other concessions. In return, it has certain social responsibilities that it must take seriously.

Having said that, I note the current good relations between the union and the company and hope that this will continue so that you can amicably settle long-standing grievances that have plagued mine workers for so long.

Finally, my message to you as workers is one of solidarity. You have already witnessed what can be achieved through a strong and united front.

Those workers who failed to join the union, are today out of a job. This should give you greater determination to ensure that you maintain your solidarity and the strength of your union.

It is only through a strong united front that workers can safeguard their collective rights.

In a few weeks time, you will be going to the polls to vote for the next government. I hope you will exercise your right to vote with caution and intelligence to ensure that a government you vote into office will work in your interests and protect the rights of workers.

With those words, I wish you well and may your union continue from strength to strength in safeguarding your rights.”