A Chinese gold mining firm in southern Kyrgyzstan has become embroiled in a protracted standoff with workers. Mid-way through the third week of the strike, neither side appears ready to climb down.
Laborers at the Ishtamberdi gold concession in Jalal-Abad province downed tools on April 30 to demand a pay increase.
Trade union representatives confirmed to Eurasianet that the dispute remains unresolved. Work at the mine has been brought to a standstill, but employees of the adjacent gold recovery plant have not joined the strike.
The owner, Full Gold Mining, purchased Ishtamberdi from the China Road and Bridge Company in 2008. CRBC had secured the concession as payment for reconstruction of a strategic road connecting southern Kyrgyzstan with the Irkeshtam crossing on the border of the two countries.
But the project, like so many in Kyrgyzstan’s extractive sector, has been beset with problems.
In 2014, Full Gold Mining was the target of a tax-fraud investigation. The company acknowledged its guilt and returned more than $1 million to the Kyrgyz state budget.
Problems with production – quality and quantity – had been persistent, although 2016 saw a breakthrough, when the company began processing doré bars. In 2019 the mine produced under half a ton, local media reported, citing the state mining committee.
In 2012, just one year after work at the mine began, striking laborers secured pay rises of around 30 percent – less than the 50 percent they were seeking.
But in 2018, nearly 400 laborers were fired for their refusal to accept revised contracts with lower pay.
This time the company appears determined to concede as little ground as possible.
Eldar Tadjibayev, chairman of the Mining and Metallurgical Workers’ Trade Union of Kyrgyzstan, told Eurasianet that workers have rejected a pay increase of 10 percent and were again seeking a 50 percent rise.
Other issues on the table include the quality of food onsite and accusations that the company is deducting the cost of some equipment from salaries. Laborers have also accused the company of ignoring Kyrgyz legislation envisioning bonuses for high-altitude work – Ishtamberdi, in Jalal-Abad region, is around 2,200 meters above sea level – and accumulated work experience.
Most workers earn salaries between $300 and $400 per month for 12-hour shifts 15 days per month, Tadjibayev said – higher than the national average, but low for the sector.
“Lots of people want work. Every position can be filled 20 times over. They only begin to recognize [the pay is] a violation when they begin working,” he said, noting that the majority of the dozen or so strikes to hit Kyrgyzstan’s mining sector in recent years have involved Chinese companies.
“A lot of time is spent telling them [management of Chinese companies] that they are working in Kyrgyzstan, not China,” Tadjibayev complained.
Abdyjalil Tashmatov, head of the local trade union at Ishtamberdi, described conditions as “hellish” for “hard and dangerous work” in a telephone conversation with Eurasianet.
With little movement from the company, the strikers hope a commission formed by the cabinet in response to the strike would end the dispute, he said.
“But I am not sure that the commission can influence the main issue, which is salaries,” Tashmatov said.
Full Gold Mining could not be reached for comment.
Chinese mining companies in Kyrgyzstan, often accused of environmental violations and mistreating workers, have gripes of their own. Chief among these is the lack of government protection for investors in a sector where tensions with local communities are rife and occasionally explosive.
A Chinese mining company called Zhong Ji that works the Solton-Sary concession in the adjacent province of Naryn has seen its Chinese employees suffer attacks on at least two occasions, with incidents in 2011 and 2019 drawing condemnation from the Chinese embassy.
Full Gold Mining, a daughter of state-owned, Henan-based Lingbao Gold, appears to have security issues, too.
On May 17 Jalal-Abad police reported that they had arrested six men for raiding Ishtamberdi two nights before.
One of the men had been caught with a backpack full of ore that the group had excavated on the premises, police said.
Aigerim Turgunbaeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.