Mineworkers draw line in the sand over Mupane

Contested: The country’s sole gold mine is undergoing a takeover again, but this time workers want their voices heard PIC: MINING.COM
Contested: The country’s sole gold mine is undergoing a takeover again, but this time workers want their voices heard PIC: MINING.COM

The gold-rich soils at Mupane Mine have changed hands three times since 2005, always in Toronto, Canada and always with local workers carried along wordlessly each time. As the mine prepares to change hands a fourth time, mineworkers are determined to have their concerns heard. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports

From its official discovery in 1998, the country’s sole gold mine has changed ownership three times. Each time, corporate executives in pressed suits have gathered with their legal armies and exchanged documents in air-conditioned offices in Toronto, Canada.

Each time, the scores of mineworkers grinding away at the pits in north-eastern Botswana have found out after the fact that the owners have changed. The country’s laws do not compel equity holders to inform workers of these changes, unless there are significant repercussions to employment contracts such as staff rationalisations or movements.

Mupane’s ownership changed from Gallery Gold, to IAMGOLD and in August 2011, to its current proprietor, Galane Gold.

The Competition and Consumer Authority (CCA) this week formally gave the greenlight for a fourth handover of ownership. Galane Gold is selling Mupane to Hawks Mining, a company controlled by citizen managers, for an undisclosed amount.

But this time, mineworkers aren’t having it.

The Botswana Mineworkers Union (BMWU) has lodged an appeal against the CCA’s decision, citing its concerns that Mupane’s new owners have not clearly committed to taking over health obligations and issues among workers caused by the dust emanating from the mining process. In addition, the BMWU, which raised health and safety issues at the mine with the previous owners, says these are yet to be resolved, with no clear commitment from the new owners.

Under the CCA Act, appeals are heard by a Tribunal which sits as a sort of High Court with independent judges hearing both oral and written arguments. The mineworkers’ union says Mupane’s latest takeover cannot be allowed to proceed with the concerns raised.

“This is definitely going to be a precedent,” says BMWU executive secretary, Kitso Phiri.

“I don’t think this has been done before in Botswana and I don’t think an intervention of this nature has actually gone as far as the Tribunal.

“It will be quite interesting to see how the Tribunal intends to deal with this matter.

“I’m hopeful that this will set the tone for the mining sector and also for other unions to say we really need to explore and make use of some of these institutions that have been put in place to advance and assert the interests and rights of workers and this is one way of us actually doing so.”

He adds: “From our side, I would say the public interest as a third-party intervention is not something that has actually been explored or at least to the extent that we want to explore it.

“I think that these are interesting times. The mining sector is transforming and so are the workers.”

Phiri says far too often ownership changes and liquidations have taken place in the mining sector with little regard given to workers, some of whom have dedicated their lives to the operations. Unlike most other operations, mining is a risky occupation and workers have lost their lives digging up minerals for owners who in most cases are not even resident in Botswana.

Last week at Mupane, a 50-year-old Zimbabwean mechanic died when the load haul dump tyre he was pumping exploded on him. The death has inflamed concerns about workplace safety at the Mine and heightened emotions around the planned takeover.

While parties who bring appeals to the Tribunal are allowed to engage legal counsel, the BMWU expects that it will take the case on itself, given the gravity of the matters at hand, Phiri says. Most parties who appear before Tribunal are represented by attorneys and the mineworkers’ decision speaks to the conviction of the workers in their challenge.

“We have not engaged a lawyer and the idea is to take up the matter as the BMWU,” Phiri says.

“We want to move the application as self-actors in the matter but of course depending on the complexities of the issue, we may engage legal counsel.

“At this point, we believe we do have capacity to take on the matter.

“Who better than us to go and move this application before the Tribunal because we know the issues and understand them and we think we are well capacitated to move that application.”

Besides the health and safety concerns, the latest Mupane transaction has rubbed mineworkers up the wrong way. The deal between Hawks and Galane Gold appears to have been struck in secret sometime last year, a period the Union is convinced coincides with a time when it was negotiating with management for a wage increase.

Under its new transformation strategy, the BMWU has been pushing for an employee share ownership policy for the general mining industry, to allow citizen workers to take up equity in companies. Workers believe that once Galane Gold felt it wanted to exit, it could have given workers the right of first refusal, rather than approaching a few managers in an unclear arrangement.

“That is at the core of what the citizen economic empowerment is all about and I think empowerment should not be confined only to top managers within the operation,” Phiri says.

“That should be a business model in the mining sector.

“It would have been prudent for the previous owners or the outgoing owners to engage with the Union to see whether or not the workers would be interested and could take up some of the shares.”

The mineworkers’ union says while it does not wish to pre-empt the findings of the Tribunal, it is prepared to take its challenge all the way to the High Court should it not be satisfied at CCA level.

“We need to act in the best interest of the workers and we need not also allow an environment that allows for economic activity to suppress or trample on workers rights.

“Corporate violation of human rights is something that we do not want to encourage,” Phiri says.

Attempts to contact Mupane officials for comment were unsuccessful this week, although management there has previously pledged to return Mmegi’s calls. Galane Gold chair, Ravi Sood, has also not responded to Mmegi enquiries sent several weeks ago.

The Mine’s latest takeover marks the tail-end of gold mining activities in Botswana. Each time Mupane has changed hands, its previous owner has based the decision on the economic value of the remaining gold resources.

Gold mining in Botswana traces back to the Mupane area near Francistown in the 15th Century and in fact, the precious metal was the country’s first mined resource in 1866. However, mining activities prior to Gallery Gold’s arrival in 1998 were largely small-scale, low tech and haphazard.

Galane Gold attempted to broaden the contributions from the various known pits around the Mupane area, but in a statement announcing its exit, the miner said the deposit had fallen below economically viable levels.

Analysts believe the shift from passing Mupane around in Toronto over the years, to selling to a group of local managers, suggests Galane Gold believes an open sale of the Mine would not have attracted strong offers.

The resource, however small or declining, still represents one of the few times Batswana have had their hands directly on an operating mine.

The BMWU believes this is why it was important for the takeover to involve workers, rather than a management group.

“If at all we are trying to empower Batswana, then we should start with those who are toiling and breaking their backs for these mines,” Phiri says.

“We also need to empower those in the lower structures.”

According to the law, BMWU has 60 days within which to lodge its appeal with the Tribunal and going by the arguments already laid out, the hearing is set to be eagerly watched by the mining industry.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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