By Mutuso Dhliwayo & Cosmas Sunguro
While the COVID-19 pandemic is primarily a health crisis, it has far reaching socio-political and economic ramifications. Serious economic impacts on the mining sector are likely to be increasingly evident in 2021. The focus for mining companies that weathered 2020 is now on recovery, stabilisation and eventual return to profitability. This cannot be at the expense of human rights and must take into consideration obligations of the private sector under the Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Mining companies can ensure they contribute towards just recovery by respecting human rights, especially workers and community rights. Just recovery seeks to build a new social contract. It does not focus on recovery and profitability at any cost, but recovery that is inclusive and sustainable. This requires a human rights-based economic recovery approach.
Mining is a central economic sector in Africa, with extractive industries constituting nearly two thirds of exports from 2001–14—oil and gas alone accounting for close to 50% of total exports. This key economic cog, deemed “essential” and exempt from national lockdowns in many countries, has led one Zimbawean union to demand a COVID-19 risk allowance for mine workers – considered foot soldiers of the nations economy as other industries lockdown. While the focus of this blog is primarily on Zimbabwe, it is a microcosm of what is happening in a number of African countries dependent on mineral resources to power economic recovery and development. Forecasts show that African countries will experience a 3-8% decline in GDP between 2020 and 2021.
Just recovery: pitfalls to avoid
Retrenchment of employees
A number of mining employers have begun “casualisation” of their workforce, a damaging process which allows companies to cash in on high unemployment in Zimbabwe, where the economy is highly informal. This has witnessed workers receiving limping contracts or in some cases not signing a contract at all. This insecurity can cause further issues if workers are involved in accidents, where their lack of contract can obstruct receipt of compensation. Recently Anjin, a Chinese diamond mining company operating in Chiadzwa diamond fields in Marange, made workers sign an ordinary paper which appeared to be, but was not a contract. According to the Labour Act, a payslip should include the full name, work number, rate and indicate any deductions. Lack of a proper contract is a violation of a worker’s constitutional rights and puts workers at greater risk.
Long working hours and or double shifts
Mining companies can achieve their production targets while observing mining regulations, which mandate an eight hour shift. Furthermore, studies have shown production decreases as the number of work hours increase and concentration declines. Despite this, there are reports of overworking by up to 12 hours per day. Fatigue can increase risk of serious accidents, resulting in injury or worse. Following the President’s recent call that “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” and ongoing plans to reach $12 billion in mineral revenue by 2023, the country has been wooing investors in a bid to boost economic recovery. Some of these companies are notoriously irresponsible, with the pandemic increasing opportunities for irresponsibility. According to the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) there is an increasing number of workers being injured at the work place.
Using salaries as bait to increase production
Employers are realising the easiest way to prop up production is to increase salaries. But while money can be a motivator, it cannot come at the expense of health and safety. As working hours are increased, workers are convinced their rewards will increase too. According to the Labour Act, overtime is full time and half and double on Sundays. However, not only can sustained overtime compromise the quality of work and the health of workers, some unscrupulous employers are failing to honour their obligation to pay.
The ongoing rain season has also seen a rise in the number of mining accidents, especially within the artisanal and small scale (ASM) mining sector. We have witnessed cases of mining shafts collapsing, with miners waiting weeks for rescue. To recover lost time and production, a balance must be struck between profits and workers health and safety. Profits have to be realised in an ethical and just manner.
PPE and efforts to contain COVID-19
It is a basic requirement for employees to be provided with proper personal protective equipment (PPE). As profit maximisation is prioritised, chances are high that costs will be cut in the purchasing of PPE, either through the procurement of poor quality materials, or in some cases none at all. Unfortunately, cases of this already exist. Some companies failed to carry out COVID-19 tests or provide sanitiser or facilities for hand-washing. Companies should not cut corners and expenses by compromising employee access to protection, instead they must follow World Health Organisation guidelines and ensure they fulfil workers’ rights as guaranteed in section 65 of the Zimbabwe Constitution.
Impact on communities
In some communities, companies are relied upon for water sanitation. Arda Transau in Manicaland, was recently caught in dispute with ZCDC, after it indicated it could no longer afford to pay rates for water reticulation by the Zimbabwe National Water Authority. Consequently, the right to clean and safe water as provided in section 77 of the Constitution was infringed and only restored after ZELA intervened through litigation.
Conclusion and recommendations
The mining sector has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Yet, even in better times it’s reputation with human rights, especially environmental, economic, social and cultural rights, has been very poor. As Zimbabwe, and the mining companies flocking to and operating within it all recover from this pandemic, it is imperative for corporations and their investors to recognise the urgent need to put respect for the human rights of workers and communities at the heart of their economic recovery plans and learn from the pitfalls outlined above. This means:
- Fair worker contracts, hours and remuneration.
- Access to health and safety equipment, including COVID-19 related requirements.
- Ongoing corporate social responsibility action and respect for community rights.