Thousands have marched through the streets of the western Georgia town of Chiatura demanding better working conditions for local miners who have been on strike for more than 10 days.
The workers are protesting recent changes in their labor and payment conditions and are calling for further improvements to their working and living environment.
Georgian Manganese, the industrial giant operating the mines, says it cannot grant key demands citing a global market crisis affecting ferroalloys, one of Georgia's key export products.
"If our demands are not satisfied, if we are unable to work and receive salaries, the entire economy will be destroyed in Chiatura," one of the striking workers told Mautskebeli, an online media platform.
He is among the 10 miners who turned to a more radical form of protest by going on a hunger strike on June 12. "I have the impression that they want to turn this town into a quarry… to simply extract the riches, make their fortune, and leave."
Chiatura is home to a major manganese deposit and is best known to outsiders for its scenic rocky terrain and vintage cable cars. Ores have been mined since the late 19th century.
Mining remains a key source of employment and income for many locals, but these days the town garners attention mainly for its grinding poverty and environmental degradation resulting from the ever-expanding open-pit and underground mining as well as industrial waste. It's also the site of recurring labor actions.
This time, workers went on strike after failing to reach an initial agreement with the company. The discontent follows months of disruptions: from February, the company halted production and placed over 3,000 employees on 60 percent pay citing a global crisis that made it unprofitable to export the company's products.
Georgian Manganese also runs a century-old ferroalloys plant in the nearby industrial town of Zestaponi that is supplied by Chiatura. Silicomanganese and ferromanganese produced by the company had been Georgia's leading export products until recently.
For months, industry representatives have been complaining about globally falling prices and demand for ferroalloys, with production costs surpassing the market value and making it unprofitable to continue exports. The crisis, they say, was deepened by Russia effectively closing its import market through the imposition of duties. Georgia's official statistics have shown ferroalloy exports rapidly falling in January-April this year.
In May, three months after the initial halt, the company told over 700 miners to return to work, hoping to revive production through what it sees as work "optimization." Optimization is supposed to mean moving those working 12-hour shifts to 8-hour shifts without changing the overall monthly work hours or pay. The company also pointedly said that "there will be no compensation for anything that brings no economic benefit to the company."
The workers object to the change. The increased work intensity creates health and safety concerns, while the increased number of workdays interferes with their routine and thus their ability to pursue alternate sources of income, they say.
They also fear that it will be difficult to fulfill the daily work plan under the new, more demanding system, leaving them without full payment as well as the bonuses and benefits they used to rely on.
The workers' current long list of demands includes switching back to the earlier work system, a pay rise to compensate for inflation, and the improvement of other basic labor conditions such as better insurance, paid sick leave and vacation time, and better handling of local environmental impacts by the company.
The Ministry of Health and Labor said it had involved the labor inspectorate in the case and appointed a mediator.
On June 15, following a government-mediated meeting, Georgian Manganese issued a statement saying the parties managed to reach agreement on all demands except the pay raise and switching back to the old system.
"The company proposes that the employees stop their protest, return to work and let workers' bonuses and benefits be defined by economic efficiency achieved through work," the company said in the statement. It also offered those willing to go back to work full-time "100 percent pay" while pledging to keep the rest of the staff on the 60 percent temporary regime until August 1. (The reduced pay, however, has only added to the discontent of workers who have struggled to meet their financial needs throughout the crisis period).
Agreement is yet to be reached as the strike enters its 11th day. On June 16, one of the workers on hunger strike sewed his mouth shut in protest.
Company representatives struggle to give exact predictions on when the global market crisis might end, but claim they are interested in keeping the workforce in town until things turn around.
In 2021, ferroalloys accounted for 11.3 percent of Georgia's annual exports, topped only by copper ores and cars on the list of most-exported products. A slight downturn was already felt in 2022, but the drop is expected to be sharper this year: the exports fell from around $51 million. In January to only $2.5 million in April.
The drop is most apparent in the sales to the United States, which had been the top importer of Georgian ferroalloys in 2021-2022, only to land in third place in the first 4 months of 2023 after Russia and Turkey.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.