Six miners were killed and three seriously injured on April 5 after the roof collapsed on the Mindeli mine in western Georgia. The incident is just the latest in a long line of work-related hazards in the Caucasus republic that have raised concern about the country's lax labor regulations.
The three injured were sent to hospitals in Kutaisi, Georgia’s third-largest city, and Tkibuli, where the Mindeli mine is located. Two of them are in critical condition. Their medical expenses will be covered by the state, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said.
Georgia announced a day of mourning on April 6. “This is an issue not only of worker safety, but of life and death,” President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in a statement. “It is impossible for the state and society to come to terms with such a situation and accept it.”
An investigation into the incident has been launched by Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. So far, the investigation has shown the tunnel collapsed as a result of erosion.
According to the country’s criminal code, individuals guilty of violating safety codes in the mining and construction industry may face up to five years in prison.
The company that runs the mine, Saknakhshiri, is part of Georgian Industrial Group Holding, a company with close ties to the opposition United National Movement party.
The incident is the latest in a string of recent mining disasters. In May 2017, four miners were killed in the same mine after an elevator collapsed, sparking protest in Tbilisi. Labor activists gathered in Tbilisi demanding a labor inspection agency be set up to prevent such incidents in future.
The mining industry also has seen labor strife over pay issues. In 2016, over 1,000 miners from the Dzidziguri and Mendeli coal mines in Tkibuli went on strike, saying their wages were too low and did not meet the rising living costs in the country. The protests turned violent when hundreds of miners occupied the Saknakhshiri company headquarters in the town center.
Workplace safety is a major issue in Georgia. According to government data, 359 people have been killed in work-related accidents between 2010 and 2017, and 984 have been injured. Since the beginning of 2018, 19 people have died at their workplace.
This month, the Georgian parliament adopted a long-awaited bill proposed in the wake of the 2017 incident after facing pressure from labor activists. The law will impose higher penalties on employers guilty of violating safety regulations, but will only apply to 11 sectors: transport, light industry, furniture manufacturing, glass production, heavy industry, the oil and gas industries, metallurgy, mining, construction, electricity, and chemical production.
The law is slated to come into effect on August 1.
Critics, however, note the labor inspectorate will still lack the power to investigate a workplace without prior approval of the employer.
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.