Deadly Georgian mine accident spotlights fitful progress following labor reforms
Worker safety oversight was slowly making a comeback after being gutted by the previous government. Then the pandemic hit.
Late on January 30, a coal mine explosion rocked Tkibuli, a small town in western Georgia, leaving one worker dead and eight others injured. The accident revived longtime discussions about the poor state of worker safety in Georgia, with critics arguing that authorities’ lax inspections may have contributed to the tragic outcome.
The accident was not an isolated incident in Georgia’s mining sector. In the rare cases when Tkibuli makes headlines, it is either due to serious mining incidents or strikes by local mine workers demanding pay raises and better labor conditions. Fair Labor Platform, a local advocacy group, has counted 41 mining-related deaths in Tkibuli since 2007. In 2018 alone, two separate blasts took the lives of a total of 10 mine workers.
The day after this latest accident, the Labor Inspection Service – the state agency overseeing workplace safety rules – said it was investigating the accident and shared preliminary observations about “various violations” on the site. It noted that at the time of the blast, methane levels in the air were above the norm, and that a technical manager who was supposed to be on site during explosive works was absent.
The Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC), the country’s biggest labor network, said following the accident that according to information they gathered the miners had not violated any safety regulations. The key question was whether mine operators were aware of the high methane concentration and, if so, why the work was allowed to continue. “Upholding labor safety norms in the workplace is the number one challenge,” the confederation said in a statement.
Residents in Tkibuli, where coal has been mined for centuries, have repeatedly called on the government to help develop non-mining jobs so that they are not forced into the dangerous line of work. In November, two residents died in a landslide accident while working in an unauthorized, artisanal mine.
While the Labor Inspection Service could do little to prevent the November incident in the unlicensed site that was outside its control, it now is facing criticism that it failed to pay sufficient attention to the mine where the latest explosion took place.
In recent years, the inspectorate neglected to carry out inspections of the mine other than responding to accidents, said Tatuli Chubabria, a program director at the Tbilisi-based watchdog Social Justice Center, in an interview with Formula TV. Similar accidents have resulted in long, drawn-out investigations and light punishments, she said.
The Labor Inspection Service was abolished in 2006, under the previous government led by the United National Movement. The government then cited the service’s corruption and ineffectiveness. But it also did not seek to replace the inspectorate with any other regulatory body, and labor advocates argued that the move was part of the government’s larger policy of deregulation driven by free-market ideology.
Similar arguments were made following the January 30 accident. Giga Bokeria, leader of European Georgia, a party vocally against progressive policies, argued that it was the inspectorate itself that was “harmful.”
“The solution is only in radical economic reforms which will create jobs, and not in left-wing socialist ideas,” he wrote on Facebook after the accident.
But critics said the abolition of the inspectorate resulted in a rise in the numbers of work-related accidents and deaths, at a rate far higher than in Europe. After years of advocacy and protests following accidents, as well as due to obligations under the country’s Association Agreement with the European Union, the inspectorate was reestablished in 2015, albeit with initially limited capacities.
The agency’s powers gradually increased, though, and major labor reforms in 2020 resulted in new authority to enforce a wide array of labor rights and safety regulations.
But in the same year, the inspectorate was given an additional responsibility: to enforce the government-imposed regulations aimed at containing the spread of COVID. According to inspectorate data, roughly 98 percent of its activities in the first quarter of 2021 were directed at enforcing COVID regulations, the Social Justice Center wrote in a 2021 report. The pandemic “further aggravated the situation on the Georgian labor market, illuminated and brought to the surface existing problems and prompted massive breaches of labor rights,” the report said.
It is not clear if or to what extent COVID enforcement contributed to the January 30 accident. Following the explosions in 2018, the authorities and the mine’s new owner failed to adequately address safety issues, the Fair Labor Platform said in a statement following this newest accident.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.
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