24 January 2019

Rwanda: Death of 14 Miners Was Preventable - Labour Union

A labour union involved in the mining sector has told The New Times that Monday's death of 14 workers at a tin quarry in Rwamagana District would have been averted had mine owners cared enough.

Francois Ntakiyimana, the Executive Secretary of COTRAF, said that last October, his office got different welfare related complaints from miners at the concession, including the limited access to platforms where workers' thoughts and concerns could be channelled and addressed.

The miners reportedly died when a slope failure occurred at an open pit at the mine site owned by Piran Resource from UK.

"That accident couldn't have happened. My justification is that, when you hold meetings with workers, they tell you how a mine wall is likely to cause problems," Ntakiyimana said.

On December 20, he wrote to the firm, highlighting issues regarding workers' safety and welfare.

The management of Piran refused to meet with the trade union, Ntakiyimana said.

Tristan Minyati, the legal representative of Piran Rwanda, refuted everything the labour unionist said.

While Minyati admitted receiving the December letter, he said that they never refused to meet.

"Those people [COTRAF] came to us. But all our employees are not their members. We don't even really know if they have members here. How do they protect people whose names or identity they can't even reveal?" he asked.

According to Minyati, their workers - nearly 1,400 - are covered by the Rwanda Extractive Industry Workers Union (REWU).

Ntakiyimana accuses mining companies of being crafty and preferring to collaborate with a labour union that does not dig in and bring to light the problems of mine workers' the way COTRAF does.

The mining sector is the country's second biggest foreign exchange revenue earner - after tourism - but the sustained loss of lives of people who work in mines has triggered public scrutiny of the sector's business practices.

The Rwanda Mines, Petroleum and Gas Board (RMB) targets to increase mineral revenues to $800 million by 2020 and $1.5 billion annually by 2024.

In a statement issued after the miners' death, the CEO of RMB, Francis Gatare, reminded all licensed companies to remain vigilant with meeting mining standards, which involve proper mining techniques.

The institution states that it has embarked on different measures to prevent mining accidents and there have been countrywide campaigns on professional mining practices.

"Mining law and regulations have been reviewed with a target of granting licenses to companies with enough mining capacity; mines inspections and monitoring of mining agreements compliance have also been conducted," adds the RMB statement.

"Mining safety standards have been disseminated to all miners and local government; companies have been encouraged to have occupational health safety workers."

The Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) is still investigating the cause of the accident.

The Commissioner of Police (CP) John Bosco Kabera, the Police Spokesperson, said there are proper guidelines and standard procedures mine field owners have to observe before embarking on any mineral extraction related activity.

Kabera says that Police remains extremely concerned about the safety conditions of mine workers and has urged concession owners to make regular inspections to establish if there are any loose rocks and to follow every safety standards and procedures required.

According to Minyati, RMB inspectors inspected the site a week before the accident.

"We do regular inspections too before people enter a shaft or start working on a site. There was no sign that day that the wall could cave in. We are accountable and we mind our safety and welfare obligations seriously," Minyati said.

Possible collusion?

Ntakiyimana perceives "possible collusion" between some mining firms and local leaders, resulting in the latter turning a deaf ear to mine workers' safety issues.

His fear is that, among other possible scenarios, mining firms contribute to local administrative entities' annual performance targets for example by paying medical insurance fees and as such, authorities may not pay much attention to what goes on in mining zones.

When a firm pays community based health insurance (Mutuelle de santé) for members of the local community, Ntakiyimana said, the District feels that the firm cannot be put to task on its other responsibilities.

Ntakiyimana added: "Even if they did [ask about a firm's other responsibilities], they are careful, they don't want to cause a situation where a firm refrains from helping them."

The New Timescould however not independently verify these claims.

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