Two people died in a mining accident in the country of Georgia’s western coal mining town of Tkibuli last week. The accident in itself was tragic, but even more heartbreaking when you consider the context.
The dangers of working in Georgia’s mines have been well documented, including by Human Rights Watch in a 2019 report. Sweeping amendments to Georgia’s Labor Code in 2020 were supposed to help change that. The reforms introduced regulations for such crucial issues as working hours, overtime, night shifts, weekly rest, and daily breaks. They also strengthened Georgia’s Labor Inspectorate – the body tasked with enforcing labor laws – by granting it more independence and widening its mandate.
The reforms came into effect in January this year, but thus far their effectiveness has been limited. One problem appears to be that the Labor Inspectorate does not have the financial and human resources and support it needs to be effective. Or else, it’s possible the accident in Tkibuili mines could have been prevented.
According to data published by the Georgia Fair Labor Platform, of which Human Rights Watch is a member, the Inspectorate has only conducted 10 inspections in the mining industry nationwide since September 2019. None of them were in Tkibuli, which is one of Georgia’s key mining regions.
Covid-19 has made the situation worse. Since spring 2020, the Inspectorate has been tasked with inspecting thousands of facilities across Georgia for compliance with pandemic-related restrictions. Since then, it has been able to do little else. According to Inspectorate statistics, the body conducted 12,276 Covid-19 inspections and activities in the first quarter of 2021. In the same period, there were only 207 safety inspections and 45 inspections for general labor rights. In other words, about 98 percent of the Inspectorate’s work was pandemic related.
Ensuring protections against contracting Covid-19 in the workplace is important but should not come at the expense of resources meant for the protection of workers’ safety more broadly. By prioritizing Covid-19 compliance inspections, the government is allowing its pandemic response to undermine its recent progress on workplace safety. Georgia’s government should step up and provide the Labor Inspectorate with the resources and political backing it needs to do its job effectively.