Georgia: labor rights, safety in danger

(Tbilisi) – Workers ‘safety in Georgian mines is at serious risk due to inadequate government regulations and the resulting mining practices that prioritize production quotas and put workers’ safety at risk, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 60-page report, “A Year Without Deaths: A Decade of Deregulation Endangers Georgian Miners,” documents how poor health and safety and limited government oversight have allowed mining practices that undermine safety to flourish. The Georgian labor law does not adequately regulate working hours, rest periods, weekly breaks and night work and does not provide for state supervision of all working conditions.

“Thousands of workers will be at increased risk until Georgia regulates working hours and puts in place a system to review the far-reaching effects of working conditions,” said Corina Ajder, Finberg Fellow at Human Rights Watch. “It is entirely within the power of Georgia to protect workers and improve the conditions for their health and safety.”

Manganese, a mineral used in steel production, is among Georgia’s top exports. The largest manganese producer, Georgian Manganese (GM), operates 11 mines and a processing plant and employs around 3,500 people. GM miners told Human Rights Watch that they are often exhausted from working underground 12-hour shifts for 15 days, including at night, and face penalties for non-compliance with quotas.

Miners said that in a rush to meet quotas or without adequate rest, workers suffered deep cuts, were buried under rocks, as roofs collapsed, limbs were lost, concussed or serious accidents were narrowly avoided.

During shifts, the company requires miners to live in dormitories, in part to maximize production. GM claims the deal ensures miners get the rest they need in living conditions that increase safety. However, this demand wrongly affects their freedom of movement and their family and private life.

“On the 9th or 10th night of work, everyone is exhausted and many workers fall asleep,” said Merab, a manganese worker. He was injured underground for the 14th consecutive night. “Someone sat next to me and fell asleep and accidentally turned on a device. I was cut and my ribs showed. ”

Saknakhshiri LLC miners also cited working conditions that increase the risk to safety and labor rights. Miners said a compensation system based on performance or the amount of coal extracted imposed production targets that could not be safely met and encouraged workers to refrain from time-consuming safety measures.

Human Rights Watch cited other practices that conflict with workers’ rights. These include long hours, inadequate breaks and no weekly rest days, failure to pay overtime, failure to provide copies of written contracts, and unfair wage deductions.

After years of deregulation, Georgian workers do not have adequate protection, Human Rights Watch noted. In order to attract foreign investment, Georgia abolished its labor inspectorate in 2006 and drastically reduced the protection of workers in the Labor Code. One study found that the number of deaths at work rose 74 percent, most of them in mining and construction. Since 2013, when a new government took power, Georgia has gradually introduced more labor protection, including the establishment of a labor inspectorate with a limited mandate in 2015.

In 2018, Georgia was rocked when 10 miners died in 2 accidents in Tkibuli, western Georgia, in a matter of months. Following calls from non-governmental organizations, Parliament granted the Labor Inspectorate more powers in February 2019 to deal with health and safety at work. Even after these changes, which come into force in September, the regulator has a limited mandate. For example, it cannot address the broader effects of long hours, production pressures and difficult working conditions.

Mining’s contribution to Georgia’s economy and job opportunities does not offset serious labor rights concerns in the industry, Human Rights Watch said.

In response to the results, Georgian Manganese said that “the human and social rights of our employees, their health and safety have always been of paramount importance to our company”. It acknowledged that “we may have some shortcomings in our work” and said it was “ready to address them appropriately”. Saknakhshiri LLC stated that it set up its own safety department in 2017 and that “safety at work is always a priority in the company”.

Human Rights Watch is aware of ongoing efforts to address remaining legal loopholes, including overtime, days off, holidays, and minimum wages, and to strengthen the Labor Inspectorate. However, no draft law has yet been tabled in Parliament and there is no clear timetable for these much-needed reforms.

The Georgian government has committed itself in agreements with the United States and the European Union (EU) to strengthen their labor laws and their surveillance and enforcement systems. Georgia benefits from preferential tariffs for exports to the US, including manganese, provided it respects and enforces internationally recognized labor laws. Manganese producers, including Human Rights Watch surveyed miners, benefit directly from it.

Under the Association Agreement with the EU, Georgia has committed to align its labor law with EU law and to take steps to set up a full labor inspectorate before 2020.

International human rights standards guarantee everyone the right to just and safe working conditions, reasonable working time restrictions, fair pay, freedom of movement and respect for and protection of family and private life. The International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions, many of which Georgia have not yet ratified, contain detailed standards on acceptable working conditions and proper monitoring and enforcement.

Georgia’s international partners, including the EU, and the US State Department have criticized the Georgian labor inspection system. In April, following a visit to Georgia, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights said it was concerned that the legal framework remained inadequate as it “will not cover the full spectrum of labor rights”.

The Georgian government should press ahead with reforming its labor law to protect workers from long hours and pressures that put them at risk. The government should set up a fully fledged, independent and adequately staffed labor inspectorate with a mandate to review all working conditions in accordance with international standards.

Mining companies in Georgia should respect workers’ rights and the safety of their workers, and work with workers and their representatives to implement reforms that improve safety. Georgia’s trading partners, including the EU and the US, should insist on full respect for labor rights.

“Georgia’s gradual approach to re-regulation ignores the day-to-day risks miners take without properly protecting their rights,” Ajder said. “The government should act quickly to correct past mistakes.”