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Armenia: Gold Workers Cave In

Bizarre twist in labour dispute at gold mining company leaves management calling all the shots.
By Susanna Petrosian

An unprecedented walk out by Armenian gold workers ended in failure when management fired the strikers then hired them back under the same conditions they were protesting.

Almost 500 workers from the Ararat Gold Recovery Company’s Sotk mine went on strike May 11 to demand a better working environment and improved safety procedures following the deaths of two people at another AGRC mine in April.

“The conditions we work under are worse than those of prisoners of war,” said Armen Saakian, chairman of the union representing AGRC's staff. “We work 12 hours a day at a height of 2,370 metres, we have no canteen, drinking water or other basic infrastructure. The miners work to put bread on the table, just to be able to get up and go to work the next day.”

Five days after the strike began, however, they were locked out by management and fired. They have now all been rehired - minus the 80 strike leaders.

Demands including the abolition of three-month contracts, talks on a collective pay agreement and improved conditions in the workplace still haven’t been met. Management has, however, agreed to review salaries, which have suffered because of the fall in strength of the dollar.

AGRC director Vardan Vardanian said working conditions at Sotk were no worse than at comparable businesses in Armenia. He said the strikers were fired because they were absent from work without good reason.

“When workers make demands which are not related to the company's work, there can be only one reaction – the course we took,” he told IWPR.

“The workers simply do not know the law. We haven't done anything illegal ...Now they are all working normally. They realise this is not the way to behave.”

Stepan Barseghian, the governor of Gegarkunik district, where the mine is located, also considers the dispute over, saying that “thanks to the talks, we have managed to reinstate people in their jobs”.

The workers, however, remain deeply unhappy, saying they were in effect given no option but to sign new contracts under the old working conditions, while the strike leaders have not been rehired.

“The leadership is just as intransigent as it always was, which shows the indifference of our government,” Armen Sahakian told IWPR. “No one gives a damn about us.”

Another worker, who asked to remain anonymous, complained that the Sotk gold workers feel “abandoned in their own country to the mercy of fate” and were angry that the government did not step in to help.

Even though the right to strike is enshrined in the Armenian constitution, the government has stayed firmly out of the dispute. “We have no official information about conditions at the Sotk mine. We get everything from you journalists,” said the press secretary for the ministry of labour and social issues Hasmik Khachatrian.

At the ministry of trade and economic development, officials who asked not to be named, told IWPR that it was not up to ministry to get involved in the dispute, since AGRC is a private company owned by India’s Sterlite Industries Limited.

This attitude has angered trade unionists like Anastas Pahlevanian who said the union is prepared to take the case of the 80 fired workers to the European Court of Human Rights.

“AGRC's leadership wants to break people and it is only too happy to take advantage of the government's indifference,” said Pahlevanian.

Fellow union leader Yevgeny Kozhemyakin told IWPR that the extraordinary events in Sotk are best explained by Armenia’s high unemployment rate, which gives management power over workers who are unlikely to find another job.

AGRC is also facing controversy on other fronts – particularly for its environmental record.

It was criticised for a plan to move its Ararat gold enrichment plant to Sotk even though the mine is located in the environmentally sensitive Lake Sevan basin.

The ministry of the environment rejected the proposal on the grounds that ore processing is prohibited in the basin, but Vardanian hopes the move can still be made.

“One gets the impression no one cares about gold mining in Armenia,” he said. “As for the law, it is not so cut and dry. Laws can always be changed, for one reason or another.”

Today the government is considering another AGRC project proposal for the construction of an 80 million US dollar gold enrichment plant near the Sotk mine, but this time outside the boundary of the Lake Sevan basin.

The idea is under review but local environmentalist Rafael Hovhannesian pledged to “battle with the same determination as we did for the first project, without question”.

The people who live in the villages of Ararat and Banavan next to the existing Ararat gold enrichment plant also accuse AGRC of contravening environmental laws.

The head of the Ararat village administration told IWPR that villagers were worried about a large, pink cloud, which is blown from the plant over the fields and the nearby village. The substance is thought to be potassium cyanide.

“There is a reddish-pink dust everywhere, and most importantly it is in our lungs, and our children also swallow it,” said Armen Torosian, an unemployed villager.

The environment minister Vartan Aivazian is certain that AGRC has “ecological problems”. “I am talking about on-going processes which can affect the water and soil,” said the minister.

In response to the complaints, Vardanian said, “Potassium cyanide is not the most dangerous substance produced by industry in Armenia.” He blamed the local population for ignoring a “sanitary zone” around the Ararat factory where they had been told not to farm, “In this zone they are grazing cattle and catching fish.”

Susanna Petrosian is a journalist with the Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan.