Mineworkers and members of the Independent Trade Union of Miners (NPGU) in Ukraine's Donetsk region. Photo: Solidarity Center. 2014
There is a safety crisis in the mining industry. But a solution exists: on International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers, it is time for action on mine safety.
The world watched with bated breath in 2010 as 33 Chilean miners were rescued, having survived 69 days underground after the collapse of the San José mine. Now the subject of a major Hollywood film, the Chilean government successfully spun what should have been a story about mine safety failure into a gripping and heart warming rescue drama.
But three workers – two of them women - trapped underground at the Lily gold mine in South Africa have received less international attention: they remain trapped after a collapse on 5 February. Their families maintain a vigil at the site, but despite initial indications that they were still alive, hope is fading fast.
2016 has been another brutal year for mining deaths: in Kentucky, USA, a coal miner is crushed to death by a digging machine. In Komi, Russia, 36 people are killed in an explosion. In the Congo, seven workers die after the collapse of an open cast copper mine, owned by Glencore, one of the world’s biggest mining multinationals.
In April, a gas explosion in a Pakistani coal mine leaves five dead – the third such fatal accident in the same part of the country in as many weeks. There are many more deaths, all of them preventable: in Pakistan, China, Mexico and elsewhere.
But a solution has existed for more than 20 years: ILO Convention 176 on Safety in Health on Mines – backed by strong unions – can change safety culture. Adopted in 1995, C176 sets out a framework for countries to create a safe mining environment, with requirements for companies and rights for workers.
The Convention makes governments responsible for creating the implementation framework, and employers responsible for ensuring mine safety. But the most important aspect of C176 is the right of workers to participate in workplace safety via independent safety representation, and the right to refuse unsafe work. This gives unions space to organize.
And yet it has still only been ratified by 31 countries. Some of the countries with the worst safety records – including Pakistan, China and Chile – have not ratified the Convention.
Major multinational corporations like Glencore and RioTinto – which should be industry leaders in creating a safety culture – are doing far too little to prevent fatal accidents. And the situation won’t get better by itself: the global commodities crisis means mining profits are under threat, and safety is often the first casualty when costs are cut.
Mining is a dangerous job, and signing a piece of paper is not, on its own, enough to change things. The Convention needs to be implemented, which means creating a legislative and regulatory framework, including inspection and enforcement mechanisms at country level to ensure that mines are as safe as possible.
The stronger the union, the safer the mine: the key to implementing the Convention and changing safety culture in the mining industry is powerful unions and well-trained union safety representatives. Unions create a safety culture from the ground – and indeed underground – up.
We are already making a difference. In 2014, 301 miners were killed in the tragic industrial homicide at Soma, in Turkey. To highlight the disrespect the company felt towards its workforce, their colleagues were sacked by text message as the mine closed. But after a strong union campaign lead by IndustriALL, Turkey ratified the Convention.
This is the first step to ensuring that accidents like this – based on greed and negligence – never happen again. Turkey’s mine safety record is terrible, and our unions will need to work hard to ensure that the implementation changes things.
Mining will always be a dangerous job, but it can be made significantly safer.
April 28 is International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers. It is time to back the call to ratify ILO Convention 176. Pressure your legislatures into signing the convention, and employers into recognizing the importance of a worker-led safety culture.
There have been too many preventable deaths. It’s time we made mining safe.