Last week action left most mine vehicles grounded in Yekepa
Dissatisfied with result of meeting with MOL on August 1
Normal mining activities at the ArcelorMittal mine in Yekepa, Nimba County, have come to a standstill for the second time in less than 10 days, after miners abandoned their equipment, when their meeting with the Ministry of Labor (MOL) and the company earlier that day did not end to the workers' satisfaction.
Leaders of the workers and ArcelorMittal met with MoL authorities to discuss issues appertaining to their demands, including work security, cancellation of "zero week", restoration of leave with benefits, among others.
The latest action grew out of the workers' utter disappointment at the Ministry of Labor, who told the aggrieved workers to go back and organize their union before the government can look into their grievances, one of the mine workers told the Daily Observer.
The existing workers' union has been dormant for months, due to internal strife and loss of confidence in the union's leadership headed by one Oldpa Zuogbay.
MoL and ArcelorMittal appear to be on the same page. However it might take another two weeks, when the mine workers are expected to elect new union leaders, before any serious negotiations can begin.
In a statement issued Thursday, August 2, the company said: "Negotiations on contracts and conditions should always be handled via union representatives - conducting illegal strike action is not a constructive way to resolve such disputes. Union elections are intended to take place on the 16th of August and the elected representatives will ensure the appropriate forum and process to discuss employee concerns.
The question, then, is whether the company can afford for the workers to stay away from work until the union is restored and ready to negotiate.
"ArcelorMittal Liberia is being affected by a second illegal strike in its Load and Haul Department [despite the intervention by the Ministry of Labor who urged employees to remain peaceful and return to work]. Once again, we are urging our workers to go back to work to minimize disruption to our operations," the company said yesterday.
Since the mine workers, mainly assigned at Mount Gangra and Mount Tokadeh, abandoned their equipment Wednesday night, the movement of trains between the mine and the Port of Buchanan have stopped.
The workers staged their first strike action on July 20, but later abandoned their action on Tuesday, July 24, due to intervention by some officials of government, including Superintendent Dorr Cooper and Nimba District #3 Representative Joseph Sonwabi. At the time, the workers gave the company and MoL a one-week ultimatum to address their plight or they would resume their strike action.
Some of the vehicles that transport the workers to work at the mine
According to aggrieved mine workers, the management doesn't care to address their plight, but continues to suppress them.
They want the company remove what is termed as "zero week" from their work arrangement; improved feeding at work, as well as the provision of good housing facilities and good health care. For zero week, they complained that, some weeks they would work for 12 hours, but the management would only pay 8 hours without overtime pay.
"They are giving US$0.50 a day as lunch, but we would not receive the money sometimes for three months," said one of the caterpillar operators, who did want to be named.
"We are supposed to work for 8 hours a day, but if you work for 12 hours, the balance four hours will not be paid and there is no paid leave, no school, no better housing or health care facilities," said another worker. "How can we work in our country under such a suppressed condition? If you are unfortunate to begin work from Wednesday, then you fall in zero week, meaning, you will not be marked," the worker said.
"Working conditions are not favorable here, no good housing facilities and no drugs at the hospital," they said.
They also claimed that any driver or operator involved in an accident is fired by the management without any hesitation or warning, not even taking to consideration whether the driver is wounded.
According to ArcelorMittal Liberia, the company is not unwilling to address the workers concerns; that it should be done under the auspices of the workers' union and within the framework of a collective bargain agreement. But all this will take time.
"In September," the company says, "ArcelorMittal Liberia is due to start negotiations on a collective bargain agreement (CBA), subject to union elections being concluded in August, which presents the best opportunity to address all aspects of our workers' contracts. These talks will involve detailed discussions on core areas that are important to our workforce: wage levels, leave allowance, working hours, children's education, and healthcare."
Meanwhile, residents said a squad of Emergency Response Unit (ERU) from the Liberia National Police (LNP) has been deployed to the concession area, warning the workers or people against gathering.
Also, some workers were said to have returned to work, while others are still hesitant and might likely join their colleagues at work, one rail worker said.
"ArcelorMittal Liberia believes it has the best and most talented workforce in the country and encourages them all to remain diligent in their everyday activities," the company's statement said. "We want to create a work environment where our management and employees have an open, constructive and collaborative relationship within a safe and efficient workplace. Our management team has assured their full cooperation and transparency with both the Government authorities and our employees and remains focused on finding a resolution as soon as possible," the company maintained.
Ishmael F. Menkor