Mine Strike is First Test for Georgia's New Government
Nearly 3,000 miners from western Georgia are striking for higher pay and improved working conditions. Their action underlines the difficulties the country’s new government will face in fulfilling pledges to improve labour conditions.
The 2,700 miners in Chiatura plan to stage a protest at mines next week while a government-backed commission investigates the situation. The company, Ukrainian-owned Georgian Manganese and the workers have agreed to be part of the commission, which will look at areas of disagreement.
The miners are seeking a 100 per cent pay rise, better working conditions and proper protective clothing, and have called on Georgian Manganese to publish a timetable for meeting these demands.
The company took over the Chiatura mines, once the largest producer of manganese ore in the Soviet Union, only six months ago.
Staff are paid 250 to 400 laris a month, between 150 and 240 US dollars, although those working in more dangerous sections of mines can earn up to 700 laris.
The miners’ protest follows the victory of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition in the October 1 parliamentary election.
During campaigning, Ivanishvili promised better conditions for workers, and the miners openly admit that their strike is intended to force the new government to honour these pledges.
“We were reluctant to protest before, as we were afraid we’d just get sacked. Now we’re hoping the new government will not do that, and that it will support us,” Gaioz Iobashvili, a 53-year-old miner, told IWPR.
Malkhaz Tsereteli, the Georgian Dream member of parliament for Chiatura, said government emissaries had already met representatives of the company and its workers.
Tinatin Khidasheli of the Republican Party, part of the Georgian Dream coalition, met company owners on October 18 and conveyed an offer they made to the strikers.
“Just because we won the election, it doesn’t mean everything has finished. Our ties to you [voters] do not end there; we will definitely resolve these problems,” she said. “The investor is prepared to increase wages by 25 per cent, but this would be paid for out of bonuses that some workers receive and others don’t.”
The miners rejected the offer, and pledged to continue their protest. A group of about 20 of them have held a sit-in inside one of the mines for three days.
Gultamze Chubinidze, a member of the strike organising committee, said, “Even if the protest continues for several months, we are not going to leave. We will protest at the mines in solidarity with those who are holding the sit-in…. We have been intimidated and treated like slaves, and that has to stop.”
Miners have told visiting journalists that working conditions are appalling. They lack protective clothing, mine equipment dates from Soviet times, and even the washing facilities are ancient and in poor repair.
“There’s an accident every day, all the machines are broken, there’s no medical attention, and we have to wear boots that are full of holes and let in water. We’re given bread that even dogs wouldn’t eat,” said Iobashvili, who has worked at the mines for 29 years. “The mine owners are making money out of us yet we get paid 350 laris, which is only enough to last a few days. Everyone owes money to the bank.”
The mining company says a 100 per cent wage raise is out of the question at the moment as it just cannot afford it.
Vladimir Lozinsky, director of Georgian Manganese, said he was not previously aware of working conditions, and he urged disgruntled employees to make their concerns known anonymously to the joint commission.
The company says it is making efforts to improve things, but points out that it has not been running the Chiatura mines for very long.
“We are doing everything we can. Our management team only started work recently, and it wants Chiatura to become the best place to work in Georgia,” Lozinsky said.
Company spokesperson Maka Kvaratskhelia said there was a lot of ground to make up.
“I do honestly want the workers to be on 1,500 or 1,600 laris [a month], but the company first needs to operate so that it can afford to pay wages like that,” she said. “In terms of infrastructure, machinery worth 3.5 million dollars has already been bought and put into operation. We have signed numerous contracts, so there will be [further] new machinery.”
Kvaratskhelia added, “We are aiming for our workers not to have to work barefoot or with bare hands. The management team has only been in place for six months, and we couldn’t physically have done any more than we have. All the problems are going to be resolved.”
Tea Zibzibadze is web editor of www.newspress.ge