By Yolita Andrews
It was only last month that ten miners unfortunately lost their lives in a mining pit collapse in Mahdia, Region Eight. On June 18th another miner lost his life under similar circumstances when the walls of another mining pit collapsed, again in Region Eight. From the date of the first incident, the media has carried numerous reports, including the reaction of stakeholders such as Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA). Sentiments have been extensively expressed on the general deplorable safety conditions in the mining Industry, and on the specific issues of wet conditions and the structural integrity of the pit walls that collapsed.
GGMC, the Regulatory authority for mineral mining, has reported that they were unable to enforce safety regulations on the mining operation that saw the loss of ten lives, due to an injunction that was granted by the High Court to the Mining Operator. This stemmed from a dispute between the Land Permit Owner and the Mining Operator, and GGMC’s move in 2013 to issue to the Operator – a Cease Work Order and an Order to Remove. The wording of the Injunction was that GGMC was restrained from interfering in the Operator’s use of the Premises in accordance with the Agreement between the Operator and the Land Permit Owner. GGMC apparently interprets this as a prohibition against its enforcement of safety and other regulations; a rather absurd and illogical interpretation.
Under Sections 75 and 76 of the Mining Act of Guyana, for which GGMC is the enforcement Authority, the area of Safety of Mines and Welfare of Workers is provided for. These Sections provide for the creation of specific safety and welfare Regulations for the Mining Sector, as well as prescribes that Mines Officers be appointed specifically for enforcing Safety and Welfare provisions, and ensuring compliance therewith. It is difficult to conceive how an injunction barring GGMC from interfering in the Operator’s use of the land as per his agreement with the Owner of the permit, can possibly be interpreted as barring GGMC from regulating the Operator’s use to ensure that it is in compliance with general industry regulations, including safety laws. Does GGMC because of this Injunction, similarly forego the enforcement of its right to collect Royalties from this Operator? An Injunction issued by the Court will never prohibit Regulatory Authorities from enforcing general legal provisions that are critical to the protection of life and limb.
What the Court seems to have done was to prohibit GGMC from ousting the Operator from working the premises according to his Agreement with the Owner, until the substantive matter before the Court was determined – a far cry from interfering in GGMC’s responsibilities to enforce the safety provisions in the Mining Act.
Apart from GGMC, the Ministry of Labour also has authority over the Mining Sector by virtue of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of Guyana. This Act provides broad authority for the registration and regulation of Industrial Establishments, for occupational health and safety at work. It enables the monitoring and enforcement of health and safety provisions in Industrial Establishments, defined to mean any factory, shop, office or workplace (including open air workplace).
Even further, the definition sections provides specifically for mines. Strict duties of care are prescribed for employers, even if that employer employs just one person. We have heard very little in relation to the application of this law, and how the Labour Ministry may have played a part in light of GGMC’s skewed interpretation of the Injunction and how it affected of their right of enforcement. Arguably, both the GGMC and the Ministry of Labour can be viewed as being in breach of their statutory duties.
What is obvious is the lack of understanding and capacity in the Agencies entrusted to safeguard the right of workers and to ensure the safety of working conditions. It is hoped that the lives lost can at the very least, serve as an impetus for the strengthening the effectiveness of this critical regulatory framework, particularly for industries and sectors that are largely unregulated. This naturally will require investments in the recruitment and training of suitable personnel to fulfill the health and safety mandates, including inspections and timely enforcement, across the board. Agencies such as GGMC and the Ministry of Labour need first to confront the reality of the deficiencies that exist in order to restructure for effectiveness. This is what is needed, not excuses.
GGDMA, the representative body of Miners, need to focus their emphasis on encouraging members to adopt best practices and abide with legal provisions regarding the health and safety of their workers. Instead, they seem to have taken to the media, in their usual tone, complaining about the manner in which the Government treats them; labeling it as neglect. GGDMA members must recognize, that like manufacturers, or service providers, they too are subject to laws and regulations governing critical areas of operations, including the wellbeing of their employees. This is a duty under the health and safety Laws; this duty is not negated by what they perceive the Government’s attitude towards them to be, nor by the fact that they have been the largest foreign currency earners for the country in recent years.