“No Year without Deaths”
A worker stands inside one of the manganese tunnels. Chiatura City, Georgia.
Mikheil, a miner for 35 years, died along with three other miners on July 16, 2018, in an underground explosion in the Tkibuli coal mine, in Imereti, Georgia. He was 54 years old and left behind his wife and his son, also a miner. Mikheil’s nephew, Pavle, only 25 years old, died with five others in another accident only two months before.
The Tkibuli tragedies bring into focus Georgia’s much-needed labor reform, following a decade of deregulation that dramatically reduced labor rights and removed government oversight. In 2006, shortly after the Rose Revolution brought a pro-western president to power, Georgia abolished its Labor Inspectorate as part of sweeping economic reforms aimed at attracting investment to the country. Since then, according to one study, deaths at work have soared by 74 percent, mostly in mining and construction. Between 2007 and 2017, the average number of deaths at work per year in Georgia was 41, compared to an average of 24 deaths per year between 2002-2005. Even as the country took steps toward restoring some rules after 2013, the mining accidents in 2018 showed that the long-term impact of deregulation, which legitimized poor business practices on safety and labor rights, proved difficult to uproot.
Based on interviews with over 80 people, including workers in a coal and a manganese mine in Georgia and their families, trade unions, lawyers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), representatives of international organizations, representatives of the Labor Inspectorate and the Labor Ministry, and members of Parliament, this report finds that workers’ safety in mines continues to be at serious risk due to insufficient regulation by the government and resulting mining practices that prioritize production quotas and put workers’ safety in jeopardy.
We documented that coal and manganese mining practices of imposing quotas, and wage deductions for failure to meet quotas, have the effect of incentivizing workers and supervisors to compromise worker safety. A new system of manganese mining, implemented in 2016, further exacerbates safety concerns. The system introduced 12-hour shifts, including at night, over 15 consecutive days, with no days off or formal breaks during shifts. It currently affects 380 manganese workers and imposes an obligation to reside in employer-provided accommodation where workers are provided with poor quality food of insufficient calorific value and endure restrictions on their freedom of movement.
The report highlights other practices that violate workers’ rights. These include long hours and no weekly rest, nonpayment of overtime hours, failure to provide copies of written contracts, and management’s deduction from wages.
Since 2013, the Georgian government has taken important positive steps to correct course on protection of labor rights, including strengthening the Labor Code and establishing a Labor Conditions Inspection Department in 2015. In February 2019, reforms expanded the powers of the Labor Inspectorate significantly. However, regulations on labor rights and oversight have yet to fully meet International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards and international good practices, including those related to mandatory weekly rest, night work, overtime hours and pay, or breaks during shifts. These gaps in law and oversight facilitate practices that continue to put workers at risk and violate internationally recognized labor rights.
While this report focuses on practices in coal and manganese extractive industries in Georgia that undermine worker safety and violate worker rights, our findings and recommendations have broad implications for all sectors of the economy in Georgia. Necessary reforms to align Georgian labor law with international labor and human rights standards and to ensure appropriate governmental oversight should benefit all workers in Georgia.
The Georgian government has made commitments in agreements with the European Union (EU) and the United States to strengthen its labor laws and oversight and enforcement mechanisms. For example, under the EU-Georgia Association agreement, Georgia pledged to continue working on establishing an effective labor inspection system with adequate competences and capacities for the inspections of all working conditions and labor relations according to ILO standards before 2020. It should also reform Georgian labor law to conform to the principles laid out in EU labor rights directives.
The United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights set out companies’ responsibilities to respect human rights including to take remedial action where they have contributed to abuses. The practices documented in this report indicate that coal and manganese companies in Georgia are not meeting these responsibilities.
- The Georgian government and parliament should undertake comprehensive labor policy reform to ensure that labor laws are in line with international labor standards and Georgia’s international human rights commitments. Urgent reforms should address gaps with respect to working hours, weekly rest, night work, payment of overtime hours and work on public holidays, and providing workers with copies of contracts.
- The Georgian government and parliament should establish a fully-fledged, independent and appropriately staffed, trained, and resourced Labor Inspectorate with a broad mandate to inspect all issues pertaining to workplace safety and working conditions.
- Mining companies in Georgia should respect workers’ rights and the safety of their employees. In particular, companies should ensure that production quotas can be met safely, and that working hours follow international standards and allow for adequate rest.
- The EU should continue to actively encourage Georgia to put in place a full Labor Inspectorate and align its labor laws with international labor standards as a priority
This report covers worker health and safety and working conditions in the Georgian coal and manganese mining industry. The report focuses on safety at work with regard to injuries and deaths but does not specifically consider long-term health effects produced by coal and manganese mining. It also does not investigate the impact of mining activities on the environment.
The report draws from research, interviews, and visits in December 2018 and March 2019 to two geographic centers of the industry: Chiatura, in Western Georgia, for manganese extraction; and Tkibuli, also in Western Georgia, for coal extraction, during which we interviewed over 80 individuals, including coal and manganese workers and their families.
We spoke to 30 workers employed by Georgian Manganese (GM), until April 2019 a subsidiary of the privately owned US-based Georgian American Alloys, 24 miners, including 17 old system workers and seven new system workers employed in six of the 11 mines operated by GM, five workers employed at GM-owned cleaning or maintenance plants in Chiatura, and one GM-employed construction worker. Of the 30 workers interviewed, 23 were affiliated with one of the three unions in Chiatura, a majority of them workers in the old system and in cleaning plants. Only one of the seven new system workers we interviewed is a union member. We interviewed 21 workers individually and conducted two group interviews with four and five workers respectively. We interviewed 16 workers in Tkibuli employed or formerly employed by the coal mining company Saknakhshiri, a subsidiary of the privately-owned Georgian company Georgian Industrial Group (GIG). We conducted nine individual interviews and two group interviews with five and two people, respectively. We also spoke with a relative of a worker who lost his life in June 2018 at an open pit mine operated by a contractor of Saknakhshiri.
Recommendations are informed by interviews with both coal and manganese workers, while the bulk of the documentation in the report relates to manganese workers.
We met with labor unions, including representatives from the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, the Trade Union of Metallurgy, Mining and Chemical Industry Workers of Georgia and all three unions present in the town of Chiatura (Labor Union of Chiatura, the Georgian Professional Mining Industry League, and the Trade Union of Miners). We also met with lawyers, NGOs, representatives of international organizations, members of parliament, representatives from the Labor Inspectorate, the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labour, Health and Social Affairs of Georgia, and other professionals with experience in the field.
Human Rights Watch sent letters to Georgian American Alloys/Georgian Manganese and GIG/ Saknakhshiri LCC, all private companies, notifying them of issues identified in the research, and inviting their comment; we also met a GIG representative in Tbilisi, Georgia. The letters and the companies’ replies are reproduced in full in Annex I.
We have used pseudonyms for all workers interviewed for this report, and in some cases have withheld other identifying information to protect their privacy and prevent any possible retaliation by their employer. We have used the real names only of miners who died in accidents.
In early April 2018, Mikheil, a 54-year-old coal miner in Georgia, heard sirens just as he was about to start his morning shift. He would soon learn that an explosion in the mine had killed six of his co-workers, including Pavle, his 25-year-old nephew. The mine soon reopened, however, and he was called back to work.
According to his son, Mikheil was terrified and could barely sleep the following months. Every night, images of those who had died in the mine haunted him, and he worried that he would be next. One evening in July, he was sharing stories with other co-workers in the small kitchen of one of their apartments. Though Mikheil had been working at the Mindeli mine for 35 years, he told his fellow miners that he didn’t want to work there ever again. But the following morning, he went back underground. That day he and three others died in another accident.
These tragedies, which took the lives of 10 coal workers in two separate incidents only months apart, shook Georgia. Seven low-level mine managers were arrested. As this report went to press, criminal proceedings against the three were ongoing; production at the Tkibuli coal mines remained suspended pending results of an external audit into causes of the incidents; and the future of the mine, a major employer in the region, was under debate.
The incidents brought into focus Georgia’s much-needed labor reform, after a decade of deregulation had dramatically reduced labor rights’ protection and government oversight. Even as the country took steps toward increased regulation after 2013, the accidents showed that the long-term impacts of deregulation, which legitimized poor business practices on safety and labor rights, needed further efforts to reverse.
In November 2003, protestors, spurred by the outrage of election fraud, economic mismanagement, and corruption, forced the president from power in what came to be known as the Rose Revolution. Mikhail Saakashvili, a former justice minister campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, won an election that took place six weeks later. Aided by western governments, as well as generous International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan programs, the Saakashvili government implemented a sweeping deregulatory program that excised entire sets of rules protecting workers and the environment in a bid to attract foreign investment.
In 2006, the Georgian government dramatically reduced worker protections in the Labor Code and abolished the Labor Inspectorate.  The new Labor Code removed provisions on weekly rest, limits on overtime hours, rate of overtime pay, and breaks during shifts. The new code introduced the possibility of oral, rather than written, contracts and made it possible to dismiss workers without notice and for any reason.
In a 2017 report to the European Social Rights Committee, an organ of the Council of Europe (CoE), the current government wrote:
The 2006 Labor Code was based on the assumption that deregulation of the labor market would attract investment and create jobs even at the price of not complying with ILO Fundamental Conventions ratified by Georgia.
Other deregulatory steps included the privatization of public assets, cutting down on the number of taxes, and an 85 percent reduction in business licenses and permits. In parallel, unemployment benefits were abolished and a targeted assistance program, providing benefits for the extremely poor was put in place. In 2005, Georgia introduced a Law on State Pension offering assistance to persons of retirement age regardless of their financial need.
Some deregulation steps appear tailor-made to improve Georgia’s score in economic rankings such as the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index. In 2006, the Doing Business indicators included “employing workers,” which measured flexibility in employment including ease of dismissing workers, working hours, and weekly rest among others, all of which were targets of the 2006 reforms. In 2007, following reforms in the Labor Code, Georgia was named a “top reformer” and jumped up 75 positions in the ranking, moving from 112th to 37th in the overall ranking, and becoming the “sixth easiest place to employ workers” among 175 countries studied.
In 2007, the government implemented a country branding campaign which saw paid advertisements placed in outlets including The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, boasting that “Georgia’s economy is more deregulated than France’s,” and that of other countries which ranked lower in the Doing Business index. The Georgian National Investment Agency, a state body under the prime minister’s office facilitating foreign direct investment, continues to highlight on its website Georgia’s “very flexible conditions for employment,” including limits on weekly hours that are “not unconditionally binding” and the lack of a national minimum wage.
A 2012 study commissioned by the ILO found that Georgia’s economy was one of the most deregulated among the countries studied, “even in comparison with such liberal countries like the US, Canada or the United Kingdom,” based on methodology developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to measure employment protection strictness.
Impact of Deregulation on Poverty and Unemployment
According to the World Bank, foreign direct investment in Georgia increased over the past decade and the country’s economy has grown robustly at an average annual rate of 4.5 percent. However, these policies failed to create shared economic prosperity in Georgia. In 2014, the government of Georgia adopted a Social Economic Development Strategy where it recognized that:
results of economic growth did not reach a significant part of the Georgian population and failed to have an impact on reducing unemployment and poverty levels.
Since 2006, when reforms were introduced, the official unemployment rate actually increased from 13.57 percent to 17.22 percent in 2012. The government says that failure of reforms to create jobs was due to the fact that most investment brought by deregulation was in capital-intensive sectors, where production requires more equipment and machinery than workers to produce goods and employment is low.
While reforms may have had some impact on poverty, disparities among municipalities are high. The percent of Georgians living under the national poverty line dropped from 36.9 in 2006 to 30 percent in 2012. In 2017, the figure dropped to 21.9 percent. A World Bank study from 2019 found that although poverty in the region of Imereti, where coal and manganese are extracted, more than halved from 2010 to 2016, mining municipalities remained poor or very poor in 2018. While in the municipality of Tkibuli, where the coal mine is, the direct poverty rate, which measures poverty in terms of consumption, is 26 percent, in Chiatura, where the manganese mine is a main employer, the direct poverty rate is a striking 50 percent, among the highest in Georgia.
Inequality also increased after 2006. Although the country matched deregulation efforts with forms of targeted social assistance, Georgia’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, rose from 36.9 in 2006 to 39 in 2012. In 2017, it dropped to 37.9 although Georgia remains the most unequal among post-Soviet countries today. For comparison, Armenia’s Gini coefficient was 33.6 in 2017 and Moldova’s was 25.9. Measured by consumption, inequality is even higher in Georgia, with a Gini index of .40 in 2017, compared to .38 in 2006.
The Unfinished Path to Reregulation
Since 2013, Georgia has taken important steps towards improving worker protections and government oversight. That year, the Labor Code was amended to make it harder to dismiss workers, to prohibit discrimination in hiring practices, and to introduce written contracts after three months of employment, among other reforms. In 2015, the government established a Labour Conditions Inspection Department within the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labour, Health and Social Affairs of Georgia (hereafter Ministry of Labor). These steps, while positive, have been slow and tentative. This gradual approach seems to reflect greater concern with protecting Georgia’s flexible labor market than a sense of urgency to protect labor rights.
The Deputy Ministry of Labor, Tamila Barkalaia, while acknowledging the need for better protections, told Human Rights Watch that she sees a difficult balancing act for Georgia between introducing labor standards and mitigating a perceived threat of losing foreign investments. “We want to not sacrifice the lives and health [of workers], but also not lose jobs for the people,” she said.  Representatives of the Georgian Employers Association, which represents small and medium enterprises, expressed reservations about regulations to Human Rights Watch. Shalva Tskhakaia, head of the association’s legal committee, noted that regulations impose a large burden for their members, “so we don’t flatly oppose them, but we want to go slower.”
Despite the reforms, the Georgian Labor Code still falls short of international labor standards. The Labor Code provides for a 40-hour working week, and 48 hours for specific industries, including mining, textile, construction, and chemical production. It is, however, unclear how these limits are implemented, considering the law does not include a cap on overtime, except for a provision demanding that the duration of rest between working days (or shifts) must be at least 12 hours. The Labor Code also does not include minimum provisions on weekly rest. ILO standards mandate that workers should enjoy, at a minimum, a 24-hour rest period every seven days, while the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommends that “two consecutive days of rest for workers is preferable as a general rule to ensure [workers’] health and safety.” According to Georgian labor rights expert Zakaria Shvelidze:
As legislation does not provide the regulation of statutory daily rest break and minimum rest period for a work week, hypothetically one is allowed to work seven days a week with 12-hour working days, which adds up to 84 hours of maximum statutory weekly working hours…
Other gaps in Georgian law include the absence of a minimum wage, a specific rate for overtime pay or pay for work during holidays, no limit on night work, and no requirement that employers provide workers with copies of contracts.
Georgian officials say several initiatives addressing remaining gaps in law are underway, including with regard to overtime, days off, holidays, and to enhancing the Labor Inspectorate. While a timeline for the changes is not clear, Dmitry Tskitishvili, Member of Parliament and author of these initiatives, expressed his hope that amendments addressing these areas would be voted on by the end of 2019.
In 2018, the Public Defender of Georgia published a 270-page baseline assessment on Business and Human Rights where it reviewed its labor legislation in view of international standards. The study identified multiple gaps in law, including a lack of weekly rest, no reasonable limits on working hours and the lack of an effective and independent labor inspection. Since 2015, the public defender has recommended in its annual reports that parliament include in the Labor Code a cap on daily working hours, weekly rest, and a cap on overtime. In March 2019, the European Committee of Social Rights, which oversees compliance with the European Social Charter, found Georgia’s labor standards were not in conformity with the Charter on 13 of the 15 issues discussed.
Georgia introduced a Labor Conditions Inspection Department in 2015, and gradually broadened its mandate, most significantly in February 2019 with amendments to the Law of Georgia on Labor Safety. The new amendments, most of which come into force in September 2019, enable the inspectorate to conduct inspections at any enterprise, without prior warning, at any hour of the day or night, to issue warnings and fines, and to suspend the activity of a business found to violate health and safety rules.  The inspectorate will also change from a department under the Labor Ministry into a public entity on its own, a move expected to strengthen its independence. Since it was established in 2015, the inspectorate grew from 25 individuals to 40, and is expected to grow to 80 in September. There are plans to open branches in regions, especially Western Georgia, before 2020. Until these provisions fully come into force, inspectors can only check safety conditions in occupations defined by the government as hard, harmful or hazardous. The law in its new form imposes an obligation on companies to appoint one or more safety specialists, requires companies to report accidents to the inspectorate, and places the burden of proof on the employer following an accident.
However, even with these positive developments, the mandate of the inspectorate remains limited.
Under the Law of Georgia on Labor Safety, inspectors can check physical, chemical or biological hazards, but not labor rights in a comprehensive sense. The law does not explicitly give the inspectorate a mandate to check issues that could affect safety such as long working hours or production pressures, or issues such as general conditions of work including contractual obligations, wages, payment of overtime hours, or work on public holidays.
While the new law increased fines for violations, these may be too low to encourage compliance. Fines are proportionate to a company’s revenue but the highest possible fine, for failure to correct violations posing a considerable threat to life or health over a period of two years, is set at GEL 50000 (approximately US$17,000), even for businesses generating millions in yearly profits.
The limited mandate of the Labor Inspectorate does not comport with Georgia’s obligations under the European Social Charter and ILO conventions, nor does it live up to commitments made under the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, signed in 2014, and the Generalized System of Preferences, a tariff scheme with the US, agreed in 2007.
Specifically, the ILO Labor Inspection Convention says the inspection should check conditions “relating to hours, wages, safety, health and welfare, the employment of children and young persons, and other connected matters,” most of which are outside the current mandate of the inspection. The European Social Charter, which Georgia ratified, requires states to maintain a system of labor inspection of the rights included in the charter. Under the EU-Georgia Association Agenda 2017-2020, Georgia committed to “continue to work on establishing an effective Labour Inspection system with adequate competences and capacities for the inspections of all working conditions and labor relations according to ILO standards.” The Trade and Investment Framework Agreement between the US and Georgia, on which Georgia’s preferential treatment under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program is based, emphasizes the importance of providing “adequate and effective protection and enforcement of worker rights,” and of “improving the observance of internationally recognized labor rights.”
Actors from around the globe have criticized Georgia’s inadequate labor inspection system. In a 2018 assessment, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Practices concluded that “the absence of a fully-fledged labor inspection system continues to be a major challenge for the realization of core labor standards in Georgia.”
The EU encouraged further efforts in this regard in its May 2019 EU-Georgia annual Human Rights Dialogue.
In 2018, the European Committee of Social Rights noted Georgia’s lack of compliance with the obligation under the European Social Charter to ensure that an appropriate authority enforces reasonable daily and weekly working hours.
At a hearing in November 2018 on a petition filed in 2010 asking for the suspension of Georgia from GSP benefits with the US, a representative of the US trade federation AFL-CIO underscored “Georgia’s decimated capacity to inspect workplaces and the absence of effective monitoring and enforcement.”
In April 2019, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights conducted a visit to Georgia and issued a statement where it said that it was “concerned that the regulatory framework will remain inadequate after September 2019, as the new law will not cover the whole spectrum of labor rights.”
The Case for Regulation
The weight of deregulation and loose labor protections and oversight has been shouldered by Georgian workers. In a 2018 report, the Labor Inspectorate noted that the lack of a state agency monitoring labor safety issues between 2005 to 2015 “contributed to the collapse of labor safety standards and the emergence of systemic problems,” and that ultimately “the lack of regulatory authority led to a decline in the culture of occupational safety.”
A study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, based on data gathered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Health, and the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, found that workplace deaths increased by 74 percent in the years following the abolition of the Labor Inspectorate, most of these in mining and construction, and remained high even after recent reforms. Between 2007 and 2017, the average number of deaths at work per year in Georgia was 41, compared to an average of 24 deaths per year between 2002 and 2005. In 2014, the country averaged 5.5 deaths per 100,000 workers, three times the EU average for the same year.
According to data provided to Human Rights Watch by the Labor Inspectorate, between 2016 and 2018, 13 people were injured, two in 2017 and 11 in 2018, and 23 died, two in 2016, five in 2017, and 16 in 2018, in Georgian mines. Among the fatalities recorded by the Inspectorate are two manganese workers employed by Georgian Manganese, one in 2016 and one in 2017. No data was provided for Georgian Manganese for 2018. At the coal mine owned by Saknakhshiri, 14 coal workers died between 2016 and 2018. The Inspectorate said these figures are based on audit reports in the mines it has inspected. According to the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, four Georgian Manganese workers and 19 coal miners in Tkibuli died in work accidents since 2016, including one in the first quarter of 2019.
In its 2018 annual report, the Labor Inspectorate recognized that “there are instances of unreported accidents.” “If the fact of death is not established immediately at the work site, it is not recognized officially as a workplace fatality and is thus not reflected in the statistical data. In most cases, accidents that might have harmed an employee's health, the so-called "near-miss accidents", are not reported.”
Regulation has proven effective at reducing workplace accidents in other countries. In the US, accidents decreased after the US Congress first passed a law in 1947 requiring minimal mine safety standards, and dramatically dropped after the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 put in place mandatory fines for all violations and mandatory inspections at all coal mines. In the United Kingdom, a comparison of fatal injury numbers between 1974, when the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced, and 2017/18 suggests that fatal injury numbers to employees have fallen by around 85 percent over this period.
There is evidence that increased regulation does not have a negative effect on industry production. Industry in some countries, including the US and Australia took off and expanded considerably even after they put in place safety and labor regulations. In the US, coal production more than doubled since 1949, soon after regulation was first introduced.
Adequate labor and safety standards are at the heart of successful businesses and economic development. The coal mine disasters at the Tkibuli coal mine in Georgia and a 13-day worker strike in May 2019 at a manganese mine in Chiatura illustrate this point.
The coal mines have been closed for almost a year after the two explosions in April and July 2018. Beyond the tragic human toll of these incidents, they also incurred significant costs for the company involved and the government, which reportedly pay workers their full wages during the entire period of the shutdown, in absence of any production. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, GIG, which owns the coal mine, said it has paid GEL 11 million (US$4 million) in wages since production was suspended.
In May 2019, a strike over poor working conditions at the Chiatura manganese mine shut down production for 13 days, leading reportedly to company losses of GEL 13 million (over US$4.7 million) and US$6.5 million in exports for the government, according to the Georgian government news service citing company officials.
The wellbeing of Georgia’s workers, as well as the future of Georgia’s economic development may depend on the country’s willingness to take action now to fully protect labor rights and safety at work.
II. Labor Rights Violations in Coal and Manganese Mines
“When miners go inside, every day they expect injury or death.”
—Tamaz, 30, coal miner 
“If you get distracted, you can have huge accidents.”—Varlam, manganese miner
Underground mining is difficult and dangerous work. Almost every miner interviewed for this report said they were injured at some point in a workplace accident. Workers had their nails ripped off, suffered deep cuts, broke their hands, legs, or ribs, were buried under rocks as roofs collapsed, lost limbs, suffered concussions, and experienced the trauma of the loss of colleagues or family members in workplace accidents.
Given the inherent hazards of mining work, governments and companies should identify and minimize risks as much as possible. This research suggests that mining practices, combined with poor regulation and oversight, increased, rather than minimized risks. While concerns about workplace safety provided the impetus for this research, we documented other labor rights violations in Georgian coal and manganese extraction activities.
While extraction of mineral commodities in Georgia has decreased since the collapse of the Soviet Union, coal and manganese mining remain important industries and sources of employment in Western Georgia.
Georgia has one of the world’s richest manganese deposits and largest manganese mining areas in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, according to the World Bank. Most of the manganese produced is used for the manufacture of iron and steel, while it is also used for the production of batteries.
Underground manganese mining is usually done by drilling and blasting an area, which causes manganese to fall. Following each blast, the space is ventilated, and workers load the ore and put in place wooden reinforcement, before repeating these steps. Every day, underground manganese miners handle heavy equipment, including drilling machines, pneumatic guns, electric cutters, and dynamite. Risks commonly cited by workers included being caught under roof collapses, being hit by rocks, slipping due to wet surfaces in the mine, or being injured while operating heavy equipment or while handling explosives. Causes of fatal injury in mines include rock falls, fires, explosions, falls from height, entrapment and electrocution, or flooding of underground shafts and tunnels.
In 2006, Georgia issued a 40-year license for manganese mining in Chiatura to Georgian Manganese LLC, as part of a government effort to revitalize industry after the Rose Revolution in 2003. In 2013, Georgian Manganese was bought by US-based, private-owned, Georgian American Alloys. Georgian American Alloys said in a letter to Human Rights Watch that in April 2019 it had completed major corporate restructuring and that it no longer owned Georgian Manganese, without giving further details. In May 2017, a Georgian court found the company in violation of environmental regulations and appointed a special manager to manage Georgian Manganese for a period of three years. Georgian Manganese said in a letter to Human Rights Watch that it operates 11 underground mines, five open-cast mines, and seven beneficiation plants, where manganese is cleaned and prepared for processing. According to a local union, over 3,400 people currently work for Georgian Manganese, including in underground manganese mining sites in and around the town of Chiatura, in cleaning plants, and at other sites, making Georgian Manganese the largest single employer in the area. According to a 2019 report of the US International Trade Commission, Georgian Manganese is the largest manganese producer in Georgia.
Manganese and its derivates are among the products eligible for duty free entry into the US under the GSP tariff scheme. In 2017, the US Trade commission noted that Georgia saved over US$2 million in duties on exports of ferrosilicon manganese to the US. The GSP system requires that countries ensure that internationally recognized worker rights are respected, including with regard to “acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.”
In 2007, the government issued a 45-year license for coal mining in Tkibuli and Ambrolauri regions in Western Georgia, where most of the country’s estimated 400 million tons of coal reserves are concentrated, to Saknakhshiri, a company owned by GIG. In 2008, the company began operating two underground coal mines, Mindeli and Dzidziguri, in Tkibuli. In 2015, GIG reached an agreement with Chinese company Dongfang Electric to construct a coal-fired thermal power plant, due in 2020, with a plan to use most of the coal extracted in Tkibuli to operate the power plant.
Extraction was suspended in mid-2018, pending an external audit into two incidents in 2018 that cost the lives of 10 miners. Seven company officials have been arrested in connection with an April 2018 explosion that killed six miners. Previously, in 2017, four workers died in the same coal mine. Until mid-2018, the coal mines in Tkibuli employed around 1,500 people, making it the largest single employer in the area.
Mining Practices That Jeopardize Safety
The 2018 tragedies at the Tkibuli coal mine provided greater momentum for some positive developments in Georgian law. However, our research into mining practices at Georgian Manganese, the manganese mine in the town of Chiatura, in Western Georgia, shows that problems persist, and gaps in labor law and oversight continue to allow practices that put workers at risk.
The Chiatura Manganese mine comprises 11 underground mining sites in or around the town of Chiatura, all operated by Georgian Manganese. In 2016, Georgian Manganese introduced a new operating system which runs in five of the 11 mines, affecting a total of 380 workers, according to the company. The new system increased the length of shifts and constrained personal freedoms. One union representative told Human Rights Watch the company had plans to introduce the new system in the remaining four mines, which currently employ around 1,700 workers. Georgian Manganese said that it is currently researching technologies “to simplify the process of acquisition, labor conditions, and security” and that a decision on introducing the new system on other sites “will depend on the flow of the process.”
Workers in “new system mines” work 12-hour shifts, either during the day or at night, for 15 consecutive days without any weekly rest. They then get 17 days off. When working, miners must stay in a company dormitory. Diesel-powered tractors are used in the new system mines to carry manganese. While not the focus of this report, it is important to note that workers in the new system are exposed to diesel exhaust, a known cancerogenic, continuously over their 12-hour shifts, in addition to manganese dust. The new arrangements made it possible to cut the number of workers per mine from 150-200 to 50 or less.
The roughly 1,700 workers in the four “old system mines,” by contrast, work nine-hour shifts with regular weekly breaks, and are not required to live in company housing. Trains are used to transport extracted manganese.
One new system worker explains the kinds of activities expected of them on a typical day at the mine, “We should drill correctly, detonate, ventilate, then the tractor comes and takes out the manganese, then we fortify and construct reinforcement.” By contrast, in old system mines, workers said they were also filling the wagons with manganese by hand and laying train rails.
In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Georgian Manganese said the new system was implemented following “deep analysis and thorough consideration” as well as “intensive negotiations with professional unions and workers.” Miners “had and still have the opportunity to move to a new system or work on an old system,” the company said, without giving details. Old mines do not offer the same financial benefits and moving may not be economically feasible for workers. While most wages are 30 to 40 percent higher in new mines than in the old system, some workers would earn 50 percent less in old mines. In any case, the possibility of moving would no longer be true if all its mines transitioned to the new system. The company argues that work in the new system “is simplified using modern technology [and] the load is reduced,” and that it will decide whether or not to introduce the new system to other mines based on results of ongoing research it is conducting on new mining technologies and equipment.
On May 15, 2019, miners working in the new system went on strike to protest poor food quality in the dormitory, with 15 workers declaring a hunger strike the following day. They were soon joined by other company employees with demands for better working conditions and higher wages, with daily demonstrations in Chiatura that attracted national attention and support. The strike ended 13 days later with a binding agreement mediated by the Ministry of Economy in which the company pledged a 25 percent wage increase in July 2019, followed by another 10 percent no later than July 2020.
The company committed to introducing “a model of financing meals individually, for each employee” although it is not clear what this would entail in practice and when it would start. In June, Georgian Manganese said in a letter to Human Rights Watch that it is “is performing the new [food] supplier's tender selection process, in which the workforce is actively involved” and that the process “will be over in the coming days.” The agreement, which the company announced on social media, also commits Georgian Manganese to “improve and develop effective and preventive measures related to labor, safety and health care,” without providing further details. An additional agreement with details about these points would follow, although no date for it is provided.
The terms of the agreement do not seem to address a range of problematic practices that compromise worker safety in the manganese mine, including long working hours, production pressures, and workers being required to live in a dormitory, and fail to ensure miners’ rights to just and favorable conditions of work.
In a statement following a visit to Georgia in April 2019, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights expressed concern about the organization of shift work in the new system of mining at the Chiatura mine, and noted the requirement that workers seek permission to leave the mine dormitory. The working group concluded that “such practice is not consistent with international labor standards.”
“Sweat cannot dry on you. If sweat dries on you, you cannot meet the quota.”
—Levan, manganese miner, Chiatura
Zaza, 51, who worked at an old system manganese mine for 33 years, blames his accident in July 2014 on the pressure to meet mining targets. He had noticed the drilling machine he was using was defective and alerted his supervisor but was told to continue working. Waiting for maintenance services to fix the machine would have required several hours’ break, but the supervisor didn’t want to interrupt the work, Zaza said. When he changed the spiral of the drill, another miner accidentally pressed the button and turned on the machine. Zaza’s hand was on the spiral, which was moving at 310 rounds a minute. He lost his hand:
Everyone knew, the production manager included, that the machine was damaged, but I was told to work. We were in a rush, in a hurry. So that they wouldn’t lose any working hours, they insisted I use the broken machine… They don’t care what you do, you must meet the quota.
The company paid for medical expenses and, at the request of a union, provided an artificial limb. The company also offered another position to the worker after the accident, at lower pay, which he accepted. Georgian Manganese wrote in a letter that it would “need more information to verify the details of the issue.”
Following inspections in October 2018 in three separate underground mines owned by Georgian Manganese, the Labor Inspectorate noted that miners operating drilling equipment did not have “individual protection means,” and that the administration failed to provide documentation evidencing technical conditions and inspection of safety of drilling equipment, as well as other technical equipment.
At the Georgian Manganese mine in Chiatura, both old and new system workers have to meet daily and monthly quotas, measured in tonnage of extracted manganese. Workers in both the old and new systems said they face significant pressure to meet the quotas, even on days when equipment or electricity break down. As a result, workers said they must work in a rush or take shortcuts to get results. In new system mines, workers also said they face financial penalties for failure to meet quota. Human Rights Watch reviewed a copy of a new system contract, which includes a clause making wages dependent on production.
Malkhaz, 50, a loading driver in the old system, said he was injured in a roof collapse two years ago because he was working “under big pressure to make the quota” and stopped “paying attention to warning signs,” like the creaking or curving of wooden support structures:
A part of the roof collapsed on me... I was in a rush, in a hurry and couldn’t pay attention. My boss said that I needed to meet my quota. He said it just before it happened.
Three old system workers said they avoid calling in maintenance to fix equipment problems to save time. Luca, 25, said that when train brakes malfunction, he fixes them himself so he doesn’t have to wait for maintenance workers to travel eight kilometers inside the mine for the job. Malkhaz, 50, also said that “[if] something breaks, [I] fix it [myself]; it would take one hour to call in maintenance and it would be harder to fulfil the quota.”
On days when workers fall behind the quota, workers said that they were often asked by a shift supervisor to go back inside the mine and continue extracting before the smoke caused by the detonation cleared. According to Paata, a 28-year-old father of two who works in the new system, “Often, local supervisors would violate safety rules to meet quotas. For example, it usually takes 30-40 minutes for the air to clear after an explosion, but [we] are asked to come back in after 10-15 minutes.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that blasting generates toxic gases that are dangerous for health. Georgian Manganese denied in a letter to Human Rights Watch that workers would be asked to reenter a mine before the air is clear, saying “the work is renewed only after the completion of the ventilation.”
Several manganese miners said they had complained to superiors about the quota, without success. “Every time you open your mouth to complain, they say ‘If you don’t like it, leave,” said Levan, 60, the main breadwinner in his extended family of six. Revaz, 30, a loading driver, also said, “I complained to everybody. There was not even a reply.”
“The quotas have to be according to the work… Each mine has different conditions, so the quota should be set realistically based on what workers actually mine,” Paata argued.
Asked how it ensures that the quota can be fulfilled safely, Georgian Manganese said in a letter to Human Rights Watch that extraction plans are prepared by “mining engineers, geologists, financiers, labor and technical security specialists, etc.” and that its safe fulfillment “is ensured based on the geological situation assessment… and by constant control of their performance and protection.” The company said it trains workers to “discontinue the work and promptly inform the management about the risks” in case of danger.
Numerous studies have found that unrealistic targets and performance-based pay schemes can lead workers to ignore safety standards. A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) assessment of health and safety in Ukrainian coal mines found that 25 percent of the workers said they ignored safety standards “because of the desire to receive incentives for labor results.” The study further identified “incentives to make money, especially when miners are paid by volume of minerals extracted, as opposed to an hourly wage” as a factor in workers’ health and safety.
Investigations into mining disasters have reached similar conclusions. A public enquiry into the 1992 Westray mining disaster in Canada, which took the lives of 26 workers, found that an “incentive bonus scheme based solely on productivity was not conducive to safety” at the mine and concluded that such incentives “have no place in a hazardous working environment such as an underground coal mine.” An investigation into the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia, which killed 29 miners and injured one in 2011 similarly found that, while workers at this mine were not a quota system, “Miners’ rights to a safe workplace are compromised when the operator’s commitment to production comes at the cost of safety.”
Beka Peradze, head of the Labor Inspectorate, indicated that production pressures such as quotas do not fall under the inspectorate’s remit.
Long Working Hours
“Someone was sitting next to me and fell asleep and accidentally turned on the machine. I was cut, and my ribs were showing.”—Merab, manganese miner, Chiatura
“If they could, they would make us work 24 hours…”—Levan, manganese miner, Chiatura
In 2016, Georgian Manganese introduced a new system of mining which includes working 12-hour shifts over 15 consecutive days, followed by two weeks off. On alternating months, workers work the same schedule at night, and are paid additionally roughly GEL 100 (US$37) per month.
All new system workers interviewed said exhaustion due to long hours over two consecutive weeks made them less alert on the job, particularly on the night shifts.
“On the ninth or 10th day, everyone is exhausted, a lot of workers fall asleep, even tractor drivers fall asleep. For this job, you need to always be alert,” Merab, 31, who worked in the new system for a year, told us. “It’s the law of nature,” Giorgi, 31, a current new system worker, said. “Of course, you want to sleep, just like if you don’t drink water for a long time, you feel thirsty.”
Workers must pay attention to warning signs like the creaking or curving of wood signaling an imminent roof collapse and watch for rocks falling unexpectedly in the tunnels. Workers also use heavy equipment and explosives which can lead to accidents when mishandled, including drilling machines reportedly weighing 150 kilos each requiring two men to carry, pneumatic hammers, and dynamite.
Merab, 31, told us that two years ago, he was working on his fourteenth consecutive night at the mine, when he was injured and suffered a deep cut around his waist. The incident ensued when an exhausted colleague mishandled a piece of equipment:
I was fixing an electric chainsaw. Someone was sitting next to me and fell asleep and accidentally turned on the machine. I was cut, and my ribs were showing. I did not report it, because I didn’t want my colleague to get arrested.
Paata, 28, who joined the new system after two years as a miner recalls how he narrowly avoided a tragedy when he almost fell asleep operating a drilling machine:
It happened on the 11th night of shift, around Christmas, at 4:30 a.m. I closed my eyes momentarily when I was drilling. Potentially, one could die in that situation. In the best-case scenario, one would be disabled for life. Two seconds later, I caught myself and came back to my senses. Every single person is tired.
All new system workers said they would be safer working shorter hours. “Mining in general is tiring, even after three hours,” one worker said, “but during eight-hour shifts you are safer because you can restore your energy and don’t get overly tired.”
Research supports a link between long hours and injuries. The EU Working Time Directive, which the EU-Georgia Association Agreement requires Georgia to implement by 2022, notes that “… long periods of night work can be detrimental to the health of workers and can endanger safety at the workplace.” In a review of 52 studies from around the world that examine the associations between long working hours and illnesses, injuries, health behaviors, and performance, the CDC found:
a pattern of deteriorating performance on psychophysiological tests as well as injuries while working long hours… across study findings, particularly with very long shifts and when 12-hour shifts combined with more than 40 hours of work a week.
Four studies that focused on effects during extended shifts reported that the ninth to 12th hours of work were associated with feelings of decreased alertness and increased fatigue, lower cognitive function, declines in vigilance on task measures, and increased injuries.
Representatives from all three unions with members in the mine expressed concerns about the new system. While acknowledging the positive aspects of the new system, such as free food and higher wages, Murman Mumladze, head of the Georgian Professional Mining Industry League, said the new system is designed to ensure that workers work “maximally hard.” “Working 12 hours below the ground is unacceptable,” said Paata Samkharadze, head of the Labor Union of Chiatura, an affiliate of the Trade Union of Metallurgy, Mining and Chemical Industry Workers of Georgia, because when workers are tired, “they cannot think with their head clearly, they cannot make clear decisions. In that condition, they can make mistakes.”
Samkharadze said his union proposed three alternative working schedules, such as working in seven-day shifts, that would allow for more adequate rest without resulting in lowering production with the head of human resources and the special manager of the mine on at least 10 occasions as of March 2019. The company, he said, rejected them all. Merab Badzgaradze, executive director of a third union in Chiatura, the Trade Union of Miners, also said the company had not addressed the concerns about long hours in the mines that his union has raised systematically. Georgian Manganese said that “the process of the introduction of the [new] system included intensive negotiations with professional unions and workers,” and said that unions could visit company sites and inspect working and living conditions.
Contrary to the widely-held opinion that workers want to work longer hours to earn higher wages, 10 workers employed in “old system” mines, who earn between 30 and 50 percent less than they would under the new system, told Human Rights Watch they prefer nine-hour shifts with regular weekly breaks. In a group interview, five workers agreed amongst themselves on descriptions of the new system as being “like a prison.” In February 2019, around 300 workers from two manganese mines staged a protest in mid-February to oppose a company plan to introduce the new system at their mines. At time of writing, the plans had been postponed following the protest.
Asked how it mitigates or plans to mitigate safety and health risks related to long hours, including risks related to fatigue, Georgian Manganese told Human Rights Watch that “the company is working on the selection and implementation of… technologies that will facilitate labor, improve labor conditions, and also increase labor safety,” and that “continuous implementation of control-preventive measures is underway.” It did not provide further details and indicated that the decision on whether to introduce the new system to additional mines will depend on the current consultations around new equipment and technologies.
Deputy Labor Minister Tamila Barkalaia told Human Rights Watch that the inspectorate has a mandate to look at all risk factors, which would include working hours and production pressures, but that the inspectorate could only issue recommendations rather than fines on these factors. The 2018 annual report of the Labor Inspectorate says that “at this stage, the labor inspectorate's mandate does not extend to protecting labor rights, which remain merely advisory.” It says further that it received four complaints regarding “infringements of regulations stipulated by labor law pertaining to work schedule, overtime pay, paid and unpaid leave.” One audit at a company which operates a supermarket chain resulted in “appropriate recommendations with which they complied, specifically by changing the work schedule to adhere to operating time standards under the law and by increasing salaries.”
The Dormitory System
“Your family is nearby, and you have to pass their house and go and sleep alone without them next door...”—Paata, manganese miner, Chiatura
The requirement that new system workers live in a company dormitory, a former recreational space for mine employees during Soviet times, during the 15-day work period appears linked to a production-first approach that could undermine safety, while also affecting workers’ right to family and private life and their freedom of movement.
Five workers we interviewed said their families live in or near Chiatura, and that they don’t need company-provided housing. We interviewed two workers from another town who said the system made sense for them as they require housing. Georgian Manganese said in a letter that, of 380 employees in the new system, 84 percent (320) are from the Chiatura municipality.
“My house is closer to the mine than the dormitory,” said Paata, a 28-year-old father of two. “Your family is nearby, and you have to pass their house and go and sleep alone without them next door... I am completely unable to take part in my children’s life.” Levan, 60, expressed his frustration at having to live away from their family in the same city this way, “I don’t want their bed, their food, I don’t need anything from them. I understand this [dormitory] system when you work high up in the mountain and need to live there for work. But I live right here, I don’t understand why I need to stay [at a dormitory].”
Seven workers said that to leave dormitory premises or receive visitors, they require permission from a housing supervisor and must log the time they leave and return. “During off hours, if your family calls and they need something, like an emergency, you have to bother the supervisor of the dormitory, and he has to make some phone calls, and he might let you leave for one hour,” Paata explained. Some workers said there is more flexibility now to leave compared to the past, or that supervisors grant permissions to leave when needed.
Others felt the system requiring permission to leave restricted their freedom. Paata, who requested to leave the dormitory when his child was sick, said decisions whether to allow workers to leave were often arbitrary, “If the house supervisor is in a bad mood, that’s also a factor.”
“If someone dies or it’s a wedding, that’s the only time you can leave the dormitory. These are the rules,” said Levan, 60, who worked in the new system for two years until January 2019. Three workers told Human Rights Watch they felt pressure not to leave the dormitory, even in cases of emergency, out of fear of seeming “demanding and spoiled.”
“They [the company] have power to give you a warning and afterwards fire you... it depends on their good will,” one worker said. A second worker supported that view, saying that “Supervisors could give us a hard time if they check the log and see you were out a lot.”
“You try to avoid it because it’s so much bureaucracy to leave for one hour,” Paata said.
Workers said they did not receive any house rules in writing, and a copy of a new system contract reviewed by Human Rights Watch contained no provisions with respect to dormitory rules. Georgian Manganese provided a list of house rules in a letter to Human Rights Watch without specifying how these are communicated to workers.
Two workers described situations when they were prevented from leaving the dormitory. Paata told us he was not able to help effectively with a family emergency:
My five-year-old was sick and needed to be taken to the hospital. Because my wife had a two-month-old to care for, she could not care for the first. [On that occasion,] I needed to go out five times in 15 days, but was only able to ask to leave once, because it was so much trouble to get out.
Merab said a house supervisor did not give him permission to leave when he needed to buy medicine for chronic headaches that he said he developed due to poor working conditions at the mine:
When I was sick, I was not allowed to go out and buy a pill that works for me and they gave me their own pill instead... a weaker one, and I was sent to the shift. I finally asked the car that takes workers to the mine to stop, and I bought the pill I needed.
On a rare occasion when he was allowed to leave, Merab said he had to give a detailed interview to the supervisor upon return, telling him “where I was and with whom.”
Workers expressed frustration with what they perceived as an inappropriate level of control exercised by the company through the dormitory system. Levan, 60, who worked underground over 41 years, shared that he felt “like a teenager” having to ask for permission from the company to see his family, “The head of Human Resources tells us how to sleep, how to eat, what to do…” Another said, “For 24 hours we are under their control. Twelve hours we are underneath the ground in the mine. The other 12 hours we are either in transport or in the dormitory.”
The company explained in a letter to Human Rights Watch that it requires workers to stay at the dormitory during shifts in order to “provide relevant conditions for the labor and full rest of the employees. Employees in the dormitory are provided with all living conditions and guaranteed rest, which are very important for the safety depending on the specifics of the mining industry.”
Poor Quality Company-Provided Food
Several new system workers raised concerns with what they described as the substandard, low-calorie diet at the dormitory which contributes to fatigue, especially when combined with long hours of work. The company also distributes basic food packages that workers take with them on the shifts.
Four workers expressed concern with the food quality and quantity at the dormitory. In the words of one worker, “There is no day without macaroni and rice. The food is very low calorie [and] does not correspond to the amount of labor that we put in.” The cafeteria serves meat, an important source of protein, only once or twice a week and the meat served is of poor quality, two workers said. Levan, 60, described the meat as “watery” and Jaba, 40, said it was “only bones and fat.”
On May 15, 2019, a strike that closed production for over 13 days initially broke out over poor quality and quantity of food at the dormitory. “They brought us what they called a meat stew. It was fat covered in bones, horribly stinky,” one worker was quoted in Georgian media.
While some tasks in new system mines, like the extraction of manganese, are mechanized, workers would still need to perform heavy tasks on a typical day, like lifting heavy equipment and building wooden reinforcements. Levan, 60, said he had to carry “80 kilograms of a drilling machine every day on [my] back, even without [sufficient] food, several times a day.” He added that he would have been “better rested if [I] stayed at home, where [I] can eat meat whenever [I] want, and have more hearty meals. [I] would have more energy.”
Over time, the poor diet and the long hours take a toll. “After one week, it starts to affect you. People lose weight, then gain it back in the two weeks at home, and start all over again,” Merab said.
An ILO-commissioned study found that “consuming fewer calories than expended will lead to weight loss, fatigue, low productivity, and accidents.”
A study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that mining is among the most energy-consuming occupations. Compared to office work, which requires 1.3 kilocalories per minute and an average of 2000 kilocalories a day, activities specific to mining require five to six kilocalories a minute with a daily energy requirement of over 3,500 kilocalories.
Georgian Manganese acknowledged in a letter to Human Rights Watch that with respect to food in the dormitory “practice has shown that there may be some shortcomings from time to time.” It said it was expecting to conclude the selection for a new food supplier, “in which the workforce is actively involved” in the coming period.
Labor Rights and Safety at the Tkibuli Coal Mines
To understand the main drivers of workplace accidents, Human Rights Watch spoke to 16 coal workers in Tkibuli. We documented practices that workers said put their safety at risk.
Similar to manganese miners, Tkibuli coal miners’ testimonies raised concerns that company efforts to maximize production may have led to shortcuts on safety. Nine extraction workers and shift supervisors interviewed said they used a coal extraction method they said was inherently unsafe but rendered higher productivity. They also said that a compensation scheme based on performance, or quantity of coal extracted, imposed production targets that could not be reached safely, but rather encouraged omitting time-consuming safety measures such as reinforcing tunnel ceilings.
These nine workers said they had repeatedly raised safety concerns with their superiors, including their shift managers, the chief of safety, the chief engineer, and the head of their mining district, about the failure to seal unused pits, failure to ensure the use of ropes to protect workers from falls, and defective equipment. Workers said none of these concerns were addressed.
In fact, three workers said they witnessed company employees concealing evidence of inappropriate working practices ahead of an inspection, for example by parking trains with defective brakes in a way that wrongly suggested they were not in use, or covering up unused pits to hide the use of a dangerous mining method. These workers expressed concern that these temporary measures were taken to mislead the inspectorate.
A post-accident investigation report by the Labor Inspectorate into the April incident concluded that the company had failed to conduct risk assessments at the mines or fulfill their obligations under the law for ensuring occupational safety.
Saknakhshiri LCC, whose parent company is GIG and which owns the coal mines, said in a letter to Human Rights Watch that despite investments in operation and safety, and a total “upgrade of the company's infrastructure and the improvement of safety systems, the company could not find an engineering solution that would have been able to make the coal production absolutely safe. Accidents were driven by “human errors and negligence.” It said further that in 2017 it established a dedicated safety department, the Department of Labor and Technical Safety, “which carries out a complete inspection of the facility approximately eight times a month,” records violations, and issues a corrective plan. On quotas, the company says that “despite the [work] plan, labor safety has been always a priority in the company.”
Other Workplace Violations
Workers employed in manganese and coal extraction reported other problematic practices related to the failure to provide written copies of contracts, wage deductions for failure to meet extraction targets, and failure to fully compensate for hours worked and to compensate overtime. Currently, the Labor Inspectorate is not able to address these types of labor rights violations.
No Copies of Contracts
None of the 30 employees of Georgian Manganese we interviewed had a copy of an employment contract. Some said they had never signed a contract, while others said they signed something they believed was a contract but were not provided a copy. Jaba, a 40-year-old miner who used to work in the new system, told us, “I signed something but have not read it because they [the company] immediately took it away.”
If workers are not aware of provisions in their contracts, they cannot ascertain whether their rights under their contracts are being violated. The failure to provide copies of written contracts may also have implications for health and safety at work. A blank new system contract Human Rights Watch was able to obtain lists the rights and obligations of both parties with regard to health and safety underground and includes a job description with tasks. Workers who are not provided with copies of contracts are deprived of essential information on these subjects.
Since 2013, Georgian law requires employers to conclude written contracts with anyone employed longer than three months but does not require them to provide workers with a copy unless requested by the employee.
Georgian Manganese said in a statement that “labor contracts with employees are executed in accordance with the applicable legislation.”
Workers in the old system manganese mines and coal miners employed in the Tkibuli coal mine said they regularly worked between two and three extra hours a day without being compensated.
Workers in both mines said their wages reflect time spent on extraction work, but not the time spent traveling underground, attending meetings, or changing into protective gear, even when these activities are required by their employer, essential to carrying out their work and, as in the case of underground travel, hazardous for workers.
Five official pay slips from 2017 and 2018 of manganese workers employed at old system mines state workers did seven-hour shifts. In reality, 17 manganese workers said they spend on average 10 hours on a regular day on company premises, of which they spend one-and-a-half hours traveling to the underground sites by train. Workers said they must occasionally stay underground even longer when there is a technical problem with the train that takes workers out of the mine, or when they need to continue working to meet the quota.
“In the 10 years I’m here, it’s always been off the table, the idea of being paid for overtime,” Revaz, 30, a loading driver in the manganese mine, said. Two manganese workers said they had worked on Christmas day, an official holiday in Georgia, at no additional pay.
Six coal miners we interviewed said they were compensated only for six hours spent extracting coal but would normally spend an additional three hours every day traveling to and from the extraction sites underground.  Two workers said they were also required to attend planning meetings. They said they are only compensated for the time spent extracting coal.
In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the general director of coal company Saknakhshiri LCC said “the working process time in a shift is six hours,” and that it pays overtime hours at a 110 percent rate, and 120-150 percent by special order in cases where workers are called to perform repair and safety work during holidays. It also said it compensates work on public holidays at overtime rate or gives workers an extra day off.
The manganese company said that “standard working hours do not include transportation from the place of residence to and from the work,” but did not comment on whether transportation to and from the underground sites is paid. It also said it records presence and working hours, and that it pays overtime at an increased rate, without specifying the amount of that rate.
Georgian labor law defines overtime as working time in excess of 40 hours per week and requires additional pay, although it does not specify the rate of that pay.  For industries where working hours are set by law at 48 hours per week, including mining, overtime would be calculated after 48 hours. The Labor Code also states that work on public holidays shall be deemed as overtime and paid at a higher rate.
Testimonies from manganese and coal miners indicate that companies routinely deduct from their wages following opaque processes for weighing and assessing the product extracted.
Workers in the new manganese mining system said Georgian Manganese deducts their wages if they do not meet established quotas. A new system sample contract reviewed by Human Rights Watch states that the base salary of GEL 1.125 (US$401) “will be adjusted in a directly proportionate way in line with the percentage of accomplishment of the pre-approved plan for the team across 15 work shifts (12-hour shifts).”
Georgian Manganese does not allow workers or worker representatives to observe the weighing process, although it has far reaching consequences over how pay is calculated for workers whose wages are performance-based.
Levan, a 60-year-old who has been a miner for over 41 years, said he and others would frequently ask the head of human resources and employees in the labor division at the manganese mine for access to the weighing scale, to no avail.
He and another new system worker, both paying back bank loans, said their wages were recently cut by 10-20 percent when they did not meet the quota.
One new system worker, old system workers, and workers in the manganese cleaning plants said they received monthly pay slips. Six new system workers, however, told us they do not get pay slips, another important source of information over how wages are calculated. “I have never seen a pay slip in the two years I’ve worked in the new system,” Paata, 28, said. Georgian Manganese said in a statement that pay slips are given “to all employees” and contain information on “all the accruals, additions, and privileges, as well as deducted taxes and other liabilities.” It said workers can also ask human resources for clarification regarding accrued and deducted amounts.
The company suspended the practice of deducting wages for failure to meet targets in the old system mines in 2017 following an informal agreement with the Labor Union of Chiatura. According to Paata Samkharadze, head of the Labor Union of Chiatura, the company committed to developing a more transparent system before reinstating deductions.
Coal miners said they faced deductions of up to 20 percent of their wages if they failed to meet their quotas. In addition, around 10 percent of their wages were routinely deducted because the extracted coal was deemed to be of poor quality, for example when found to be mixed with rocks. In a group interview with Human Rights Watch, four workers concurred that they or their representatives were not allowed to participate in the weighing and assessing of the coal. In response to these concerns, Saknakhshiri LLC, which operates the coal mines, stated that remuneration of employees involved in extraction, tunneling and mechanism repairs “is entirely dependent on the results of the employee's labor,” and that “[t]he Quality Control Service is involved in determining the weight and quality of coal.”
Workers have a right to know how their wage is calculated. According to the Georgian Labor Code, “an employer may deduct from an employee’s remuneration overpayments or any other sum payable by the employee to the employer in the framework of labor relations,” and cannot exceed 50 percent of the wage.
III. Georgia’s International Obligations
International Human Rights and Labor Standards
Basic human rights standards guaranteeing everyone the right to just and safe conditions of work, reasonable limitations on work hours, fair pay, right to freedom of movement, and the right to family and private life are articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). These standards are enshrined as international law in treaties that Georgia has ratified, notably the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as regional instruments including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the European Social Charter (ESC).
Georgia is also party to all core ILO conventions, which further amplify protection for workers’ rights, but has not yet ratified conventions that impose obligations with respect to specific conditions of work, including in mining. Georgia has also not ratified ILO Labour Inspection Convention 81.
The ICESCR provides for a right to just and favorable conditions of work, which includes safe and healthy working conditions and reasonable hours of work. The ESC provides for a right to safe work, weekly rest, holidays with pay, and fair remuneration, and requires countries to monitor these rights through a system of labor inspection.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated in its General Comment 23 on the right to just and favorable conditions of work that:
Rest and leisure, limitation of working hours, as well as paid periodic holidays help workers to maintain an appropriate balance between professional, family and personal responsibilities and to avoid work-related stress, accidents and disease.
Everyone has a right to private and family life under Article 8 of the ECHR. ILO Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention 156, which Georgia has not yet ratified, provides for measures to enable persons with family responsibilities who are engaged in employment to exercise their right “to the extent possible, without conflict between their employment and family responsibilities.”
Article 2 of Protocol 4 of the Convention provides for freedom of movement, including a freedom to choose one’s residence.
Georgia has not yet ratified ILO Occupational Safety and Health Convention 155 or ILO Safety and Health in Mines Convention 176. Convention 155 requires states to adopt policies meant “to prevent accidents and injury to health arising out of, or linked with or occurring in the case of work, by minimizing, so far as is reasonably practicable, the causes of hazards inherent in the working environment.” Convention 176 stipulates, among other things, the need for “appropriate inspection services” to supervise safety and health in mines with “the resources necessary for the accomplishment of their tasks.”
ILO Convention 1 on Hours of Work in Industry says that working hours shall not exceed eight in a day and 48 in a week. One exception is for work that is carried out continuously by a succession of shifts, on the condition that working hours shall not exceed 56 in the week on the average, and that weekly rest days as defined in national laws shall be respected. However, the ILO has said that such continuous work cannot be due to considerations as economic advantage for an enterprise, and apply only to processes which are “required by reason of the nature of the process to be carried on continuously”. In all other cases, a rule of 48 hours average per week applies.
The 1962 resolution of the International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) concerning statistics of hours of work defines “hours actually worked” to include, in addition to productive time, time spent on ancillary activities, unproductive time spent in the course of the production process, and short resting time.
ILO Protection of Wages Convention 95, which Georgia has not ratified, stipulates that deductions from wages shall be permitted only under conditions and to the extent prescribed by national laws and that workers shall be informed of the conditions under which and the extent to which such deductions may be made. ILO Recommendation 85 on the Protection of Wages requires that deductions from wages for loss or damage of products should be authorized only when the worker can be clearly shown to be responsible, they are in a fair amount, and only after giving the worker a reasonable opportunity to show cause for why the deduction should not be made. While these recommendations are not directly applicable to deductions for failure to meet a production target, the general principles, like providing workers with clear information about how deductions are calculated, could be understood to apply.
ILO Recommendation 85 on the Protection of Wages stipulates that the details of the wages conditions which should be brought to the knowledge of the workers should include, wherever appropriate, information on the method of calculation and the conditions under which deductions may be made. Workers should be informed, with each payment of wages, of the gross amount of wages earned, any deduction which may have been made, including the reasons and amount, and the net amount of wages due.
The European Committee of Social Rights has commented, with regard to wage deductions, that these should not deprive employees with the lowest pay and their dependents of their means of subsistence.
The EU has a number of directives regulating worker rights that Georgia has committed to implementing in national law as part of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement. By 2022, Georgia is to put in place the EU 2003/88/EC Working Time directive, which includes provisions for weekly rest, night work, breaks during shifts and annual leave which would address several significant gaps in Georgian law. By 2020, it is expected to implement Council Directive 91/533/EEC which obliges employers to issue written information on conditions of employment.
Some countries explicitly recognize fatigue as an occupational health and safety hazard. States in Australia require mine operators to adopt health and safety strategies that “must include work arrangements that eliminate employee fatigue so far as is reasonably practicable.” The Health and Safety Executive, a United Kingdom government agency responsible for regulation and enforcement of health and safety at work, explicitly names fatigue as a hazard that requires risk assessment under the United Kingdom’s health and safety regulations.
Guidance developed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, for worker accommodation in projects they fund clarify that rules and regulations “should not prevent workers from exercising their basic rights. In particular, workers’ freedom of movement needs to be preserved if they are not to become effectively ‘trapped.’”
Some countries also explicitly recognized that travel to underground mines and changing into working gear constitutes work. In Tennessee Coal Co. v. Muscoda Local No 123 the US Supreme Court ruled in 1944 that underground travel by iron ore miners constitutes work and must be compensated because it is a “process necessary to production.” In Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co, the US Supreme Court declared that activities such as changing into work gear “are clearly work.”
In the 1890s and early 1900s, countries with mining industries, including the United Kingdom and New Zealand and several states in the US adopted checkweighman laws. Under these regulations, many still in place today, workers can appoint a checkweighman, with access to weighing scales, whose role was to observe and check that weighing of extracted product takes place correctly. 
Corporate Human Rights Responsibilities
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights set out companies’ responsibility to respect human rights, including the requirement to “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their activities,” as well as to “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”
The EU-Georgia Association Agreement requires that Georgia promote corporate social responsibility and accountability and encourage responsible business practices, such as those promoted by a number of international corporate social responsibility guidelines and especially the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
The OECD Guidelines include recommendations for companies to carry out due diligence in their operations, which includes to identify, assess, and mitigate actual and potential adverse impacts associated with the enterprise’s operations, products, or services.
To the Georgian Government
- Pursue comprehensive labor policy reform to ensure that labor laws are in line with international labor standards and Georgia’s international human rights commitments. Particular gaps identified in this report include better regulation of working hours, weekly rest, night work, payment of overtime hours and work on public holidays, and providing workers with copies of contracts.
- Ensure the establishment of a fully-fledged, independent and appropriately staffed, trained, and resourced Labor Inspectorate with a broad mandate to check all issues pertaining to workplace safety and working conditions.
- Ratify ILO Convention 81 on Labor Inspectorate, ILO Convention 155 on Occupational Health and Safety and ILO Convention 176 on Safety and Health in mines.
- Ratify ILO Convention 14 on Weekly Rest and ILO Convention 1 on Hours of Work in Industry.
To the Parliament of Georgia
- As an immediate step, amend the Law of Georgia on Labor Safety to explicitly enable the Labor Inspectorate to systematically verify any workplace hazard, including, but not limited to, hazards related to working hours, fatigue and adequate rest and production pressures.
- Amend the Labor Code and/or other relevant laws and regulations with a view to putting in place an independent, appropriately staffed and trained Labor Inspectorate with a broad mandate to check all issues pertaining to workplace safety and working conditions.
- Ensure that fines for violations of labor and safety standards are sufficient to provide an incentive for compliance, change behavior, and deter future violations.
- Amend the Labor Code with a view to including the following provisions, in line with ILO standards, the European Social Charter, and the EU EC Directive 2003/88 on Working Time:
- Introduce a weekly rest period of at least 24 hours for every seven-day period provision on weekly rest;
- Specify a rate for hours worked overtime, on holidays, on weekly rest days, and at night which should be no less than one-and-a-quarter times that of standard hours, in line with ILO standards;
- Consider restricting overtime hours in a way consistent with workers’ need for adequate rest;
- Provide for mandatory breaks for any shift longer than six hours;
- Limit hours worked at night to a maximum of eight;
- Set clear rules limiting the scope for deductions from wages and reduce the legal limit of deductions to a level which would allow workers to provide for themselves and their dependents.
- Implement and bring its legislation in line with Council Directive 91/533/EEC on an employer's obligation to inform employees of the conditions applicable to the contract or employment relationship.
To the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labour, Health and Social Affairs of Georgia
- Introduce regulations requiring companies to have in place a fatigue management policy and require the Labor Inspectorate to systematically verify whether hours of work interfere with adequate rest and safety at work.
- Introduce regulations requiring companies to independently prove that production targets can be met safely and empower the Labor Inspectorate to verify how this is upheld in practice.
- Collect and make public data on mining accidents and ensure disaggregation of data on the basis of employer, region, and injury.
To Georgian Manganese
With regard to the new mining system:
- At a minimum, and without resulting in loss of pay for workers:
- Introduce a weekly break of at least 24-hour hours for every seven-day period;
- Limit night work to no more than eight hours;
- Include official breaks of at least 30 minutes for every six-hour period;
- Allow workers to freely choose their place of residence during shift work, with no retaliation for workers who choose to not live in company housing;
- Ensure that any restrictions on times for entry and leaving the dormitory are reasonable, proportionate and designed to protect the interests of all those residing in the dormitory.
- In consultation with workers and trade unions, adopt a fatigue management plan and ensure that workers get adequate rest.
- In consultation with workers, their representatives, and trade unions, revise production targets with a view to setting them at a level that can demonstrably be achieved safely.
- Allocate a budget sufficient to meet dietary requirements for strenuous activities, including sufficient protein intake, for workers who choose to stay in company residence.
- Provide all workers with copies of written contracts, including safety requirements for specific positions, and ensure that all workers receive their pay slips on a monthly basis.
With regard to the old mining system:
- Pay workers for all time when they are expected to be on company territory, including time spent in planning meetings, changing into working gear, and in transport from surface to the underground sites.
- Pay any hours worked in addition to a 48-hour week, or any time worked on public holidays or at night at an increased rate; pending law reform making it mandatory, the company should consider adopting a rate not lower than one-and-a-quarter times the rate paid for standard hours, in line with ILO standards.
- Provide all workers with copies of written contracts, including safety requirements for specific positions, and pay slips on a monthly basis; reflect all hours worked on pay slips.
- In consultation with workers, their representatives, and trade unions, revise production targets with a view to setting them at a level that can demonstrably be achieved safely. Provide a remedy to workers who were not paid for hours spent at the workplace during the proceeding years, and in consultation with unions reach an agreement on how to compensate workers retroactively for their work.
To Georgian Industrial Group
- Replace production-based wages with fixed wages, based on a yearly average, for all workers, regardless of production.
- In consultation with workers, their representatives, and trade unions, revise production targets with a view to setting them at a level that can demonstrably be achieved safely.
- Cease the practice of deducting wages for poor quality of coal when miners work full hours.
- Pay workers for all time when they are expected to be on company territory, including time spent in planning meetings, changing into working gear and in transport from surface to the underground sites; reflect all hours worked on pay slips.
- Pay any hours worked in addition to a 48-hour week, or any time worked on public holidays or at night at an increased rate; pending law reform making it mandatory, the company should consider adopting a rate not lower than one-and-a-quarter times the rate paid for standard hours, in line with ILO standards.
- Provide a remedy to workers who were not paid for hours spent at the workplace during the proceeding years, and in consultation with unions reach an agreement on how to compensate workers retroactively for their work.
To the EU and the US Government
- Continue to actively encourage Georgia to put in place a full Labor Inspectorate, ratify key ILO conventions, align its labor laws with international labor standards as a matter of priority, and implement the above-mentioned recommendations.
- The EU should ensure that the update of the Association Agenda for the period starting in 2021 sets new priorities that would be in line with ILO standards, the provisions of the European Social Charter, and the EU EC Directive 2003/88 on Working Time and Council Directive 91/533/EEC, which obliges employers to issue written information on conditions of employment.
Corina Ajder, Finberg Fellow of the Europe and Central Asia Division (ECA) of Human Rights Watch was the primary researcher and author of this report. Marlene Auer, Human Rights Watch intern, provided secondary research support. Judith Sunderland, associate director in ECA; Rachel Denber, deputy director in ECA and Giorgi Gogia, associate director in ECA, and Tom Porteous, deputy program director, edited the report. Sarah Saadoun, researcher in the Business and Human Rights Division provided specialist review, and Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor, provided legal review. Catherine Pilishvili, senior associate for the ECA division, prepared this report for publication.
Human Rights Watch would like to thank Georgian organizations Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center and Solidarity Network for their assistance with the report.
Human Rights Watch wishes to thank the Georgian workers who agreed to be interviewed for this report. Without them, this report would not have been possible.