An assessment of workers’ rights in the mining sector during Covid-19 lockdown

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Introduction

From the 30th of March 2020, Zimbabwe went into a lockdown in response to the global Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown was announced by President Emmerson Mnangagwa on the 27th of March 2020 and was later operationalized through the enactment of Statutory 83 of 2020 Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) Order, 2020. The lockdown essentially meant that all citizens were required to stay at home except those designated as ‘essential services’. Movement was strictly controlled by law enforcement agents and Zimbabweans were only allowed to make movements related to essential issues such as to buy food, for health emergencies and funerals. The guidelines were later amended through Statutory Instrument 94/2020 Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) Order, 2020. The SI relaxed the lockdown and allowed mining companies across the country to resume operations, joining coal mining companies which never closed during the lockdown by virtue of their link to power generation. To date, Zimbabwe has a total of 37 Covid-19 cases, 12 recoveries and four deaths[1]. This week’s situation update looks at how the mining companies have been handling labour concerns as they have been operating during the lockdown.

Health and Safety

Some mining companies have been complying with the health and safety regulations, while some are still exposing their workers to the coronavirus. The World Health Organisation issued recommendations for employers to ensure the safety of employees against Covid-19. These included placing sanitizing hand rub dispensers in prominent places around the workplace and making sure that employees and contractors have access to places where they can wash their hands with soap and water.[2] SI 94 of 2020 mandated mining companies to screen their employees for Covid-19 before resuming operations. Section 11C, sub section 5b and c, mandated all employees to submit to screening and testing for the Covid-19. However, in Hwange, Mutoko and Marange, companies like Hwange Colliery Company, Surewing, Zhintin and Anjin Investments have been making piecemeal commitments to health and safety of the employees.  In Mutoko, Surewing and Zhintin reportedly compromised the safety of employees by ignoring these stipulated health measures. The two companies did not provide hand sanitizers and masks whilst social distancing was not observed. It took the intervention of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the local Member of Parliament, the District Administrator Isaiah Mukamba and local health officials for the situation to be improved. The companies violated Statutory Instrument 99 of 2020 Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) Order, 2020 which prescribes that every individual must wear a mask “whether improvised or manufactured” when leaving home[3]. Natural Stone Company in Mutoko was applauded by community monitors as the only company in that area which invested time and money towards the health and safety of their employees during the lockdown.

In Hwange, the country’s biggest coal mining company, Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL) only started providing masks to employees on Monday the 11th of May 2020. The workers at the company have not been screened too. According to an employee, the company has been checking workers’ temperature on arrival and providing them with hand sanitizers. HCCL is also transporting employees to and from work using the company bus. Although the bus has a carrying capacity of 65 passengers, social distancing is being observed as a maximum of 35 employees are carried per trip. At Anjin Investments in Marange, employees are complaining about poor living conditions. An insider said they have been camped at the company premises since the lockdown started. About 40 people are forced to share one facility for eating, sleeping and bathing, thereby making it difficult to observe social distancing even after working hours. The company has also not provided masks which are mandatory under level 2 of the lockdown.

Non-payment of salaries

During the lockdown, some workers have failed to get their salaries, while some workers have gone for 3 months without pay. When the lockdown started, most companies shut down operations but coal mining companies remained operational, although some with skeletal staff. Covid-19 presented an unfamiliar and unprecedented situation to both employees and the mining companies. It is important to note that the country’s Labour Act[4] does not make provisions for emergencies such as, natural disasters, war and let alone the unusual situation presented by Covid-19 pandemic, which the employees or employers can rely on during the lockdown. The statutory instruments gazetted to operationalize the lockdown were silent on the issue of salaries. Workers who have not been at work during lockdown period have not been paid their wages or salaries. However, The Protection of Wages Convention, 1949 (No. 95) prescribes that wages should be paid regularly.[5] In Hwange, Syno Hydro II Company refused to pay more than 100 employees who were sent home while retaining skeletal staff as part of Covid-19 prevention measures. The company only paid workers who remained at work. The affected workers are bearing the brunt of policy gaps because their absence from work was not their fault, but it was a Government mandatory measure meant to contain the spread of the virus.  

The National Employment Council for the mining industry recently bargained for a 187% salary increment[6] for its constituency but an employee at Hwange Colliery Company Limited confided that the company refused to effect the increment. The company has been pleading to be excused on the ground that it is broke. However, the company’s Acting Managing Director Charles Zinyemba and Administrator Bekithemba Moyo told the media that HCCL posted 1,5 billion dollars profit.[7] The company has also not been able to pay some of the employees their April salaries. In a memo sent to employees on Monday the 11th of May 2020, it was announced that the company has processed payments for grades 1LA up to 1HC1. “The rest of the grades will be paid next week,” read the memo. Grades 1LA to 1HC1 caters for general hands to entry level artisans. 

The state owned diamond mining company, Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company (ZCDC), is at loggerheads with employees after failing to pay salaries for some of the workers for three months. An employee at the mine informed CNRG that workers are on go-slow, protesting non-payment of salaries. On the 6th of May, 2020, ZCDC worker’s committee travelled to Harare to meet with management after rumours that an industrial action was imminent. The company reportedly offered to pay part of the February salary in foreign currency and the remainder in local currency but the worker’s committee rejected the offer demanding full payment of salaries in United States Dollars.

Harassment and unfair labour practices

There are reports of victimisation of an employee in a Chinese owned mining company, and HCCL is evicting over 100 former employees from company accommodation. Across the country, there have been numerous complaints of unfair treatment of workers by Chinese owned companies in the extractive industry. These companies are reportedly reluctant to observe local labour laws and to uphold basic human rights. A Lukosi villager, Passmore Nehwati who was working for Dinson Colliery in Hwange was fired from work after reporting Zhang Yan, a Chinese national, for assault. The assault incident happened on the 11th of April, 2020 and was reported to Police (reference 4329440). Zhang Yan is a supervisor at Dinson Colliery Company.

Hwange Colliery Company Limited issued eviction notices to its former employees who are still occupying company houses. The affected former employees are resisting on the basis that the company owes them salaries for five years. The matter has spilt into the courts[8] and workers have filed for an interdict to stop the company from evicting them until salary arrears have been cleared. The affected former employees filed additional affidavits on the 6th of May, 2020. The company has not yet responded to the application and the matter is set for hearing on the 28th of May 2020 at Hwange Magistrates Court. CNRG is providing legal advice to the affected former employees through its attorney.

Complying with lockdown operational hours

Generally, most mining companies are operating beyond the stipulated business operational hours. SI 99 sets the time for businesses to operate. The guideline stipulates that all business must operate from 8am to 3pm “except for good cause” that can be proved to law enforcement agents. However, all coal mining companies in Hwange are operating for more than the stipulated working hours. In Mutoko, all the companies have been operating from 7 am to 5 pm since the beginning of the lockdown. The companies are Natural Stone, CRG Quarries, Ilford Red Granite Pvt Ltd, Zimbabwe International Quarries, Surewing, Zhintin and Quarrying Enterprise. Anjin Investments in Marange is operating for 12 hours and in clear violation of the rules. From all the project sites were CNRG is working, it is only Bikita Minerals and Murowa Diamonds which are observing operating times stipulated in SI 99.

Conclusion

It is therefore clear that there are regulatory and policies gaps in government’s response to Covid-19, as well as implementation gaps in the execution of the lockdown. Such gaps have inevitably affected mining labour. The legislative frameworks regulating infectious diseases is ambiguous about the behaviour of employers in times of such crises. Government must take lessons from the lockdown to improve regulations and policies that are supposed to protect workers from injustice during emergency situations.

CNRG therefore makes the following recommendations:

  • That the Government of Zimbabwe convenes a Tripartite Negotiating Forum to discuss the conduct of employers and their employees during the lockdown.
  • That the Parliament of Zimbabwe amends the Labour Act to provide for the conduct of employers and employees during emergencies.
  • Government ensures that companies provide decent accommodation to their employees to minimise staff movements and contact with community members.
  • Government should ensure that companies provide protective equipment for all workers despite rank or grade who are working during this pandemic. Enforce punitive measures on companies that defy government regulatory and policy measures aimed at combating an emergency.
  • Enforce punitive and deterrent measures for companies that violate the health and safety of workers during emergency situations.

[1] https://bulawayo24.com/index-id-news-sc-national-byo-185208.html

[2] https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/getting-workplace-ready-for-covid-19.pdf

[3] https://www.sundaymail.co.zw/level-2-lockdown-explained

[4] http://veritaszim.net/sites/veritas_d/files/Labour%20Act%20updated%20to%202019.pdf

[5] https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_dialogue/—act_emp/documents/publication/wcms_740212.pdf

[6] https://www.chronicle.co.zw/187-pay-rise-for-mine-workers/

[7] https://www.newsday.co.zw/2020/05/hwange-swings-to-15bn-profit/

[8] https://www.hmetro.co.zw/ex-employees-sue-hwange-colliery/

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