Merab, a 31-year-old manganese miner in Georgia, is lucky to be alive. Two years ago, while working underground, he suffered a deep cut around his waist when an exhausted colleague pressed the start button by mistake on a piece of mining equipment. He was working 12-hour shifts over 15 straight days, including at night - a system affecting around 380 workers employed at Georgian Manganese, in Chiatura, western Georgia.
But there could be a glimmer of hope for workers like Merab, with signs the government may finally be taking a long-needed look at the question of working hours and related issues.
Our August report, “No Year Without Deaths” documented how quota pressures and insufficient rest contribute to unsafe working conditions. Workers in one coal and one manganese mine described suffering deep cuts, being buried under rocks as roofs collapsed, losing limbs, suffering concussions, or narrowly avoiding serious accidents. This is possible because Georgian law does not sufficiently regulate working time, and since 2006 there has not been a proper system of workplace labor inspections in place.
In late August in a meeting to review our findings, representatives of Georgian civil society, trade unions, parliament, the EU and US delegations, and other key actors looked for ways to improve labor conditions. The discussion focused on a parliamentary initiative to be introduced in the autumn which would address legal gaps, including provisions for a full labor inspectorate and hours of work. Georgian civil society activists, however, remain alert to the risk that critics of regulation will seek to weaken the provisions or have the initiative’s implementation postponed, leaving workers unprotected and at risk.
On his part Merab told me recently that although injured at the mine, he now wants to go back to the same job, working 12-hour shifts. There aren’t other jobs paying as much in his town – in fact, the mine is the municipality’s main employer.
Workers put up with dangerous work conditions because their need for work gives them little choice. But the Georgian government does have a choice and an obligation to protect its workers. Georgia should do the right thing and regulate hours of work, put in place a full labor inspectorate, and ensure that Merab and all Georgian workers can work in safe, decent conditions.