September 8, 20100
There are only a few who can fathom the kind of grueling work required by miners. Long hours, confined space, unsanitary conditions and above all, suffocating atmosphere make mining one of the most unattractive occupations in the world.
The fear of death weighs constantly on a miner’s mind. Many times, the distance between working in a mine and losing your life is indeed just a hairline as we are seeing in the recent Chilean mine disaster.
Accidents such as cave-ins, gas accumulation, suffocation and explosions are daily realities confronting miners although their likelihood is much higher in the developing world. Never mind that in the case of these countries, progress and development are the excuse for such practices. Last year, one such accident occurred to the miners of Baab Nizoo in the city of Zarand, in Kerman province. Due to accumulation of methane gas many miners lost consciousness and were unable to escape. And then came the blast. Not only did the explosion cause the mine itself to blow up, it blew up the miners themselves from inside due to accumulation of gas in their lungs; a scene that even a horror-fiction writer can not describe. No monument stands anywhere to honor the fallen workers since miners have no unions of their own in the Islamic Republic of Iran. News coverage of the incident was rare and far in between. Those who lost their lives were heroes only to their children who were waiting for them at home.
This was not the first time Baab Nizoo mine had exploded. It had happened twice before. There had also been other accidents reported to the authorities. These incidents were supposed to have been too frequent, too recent for people to forget about. In the two previous explosions, some other miners had lost their lives as well. This coal mine, due to high concentration of methane gas, had been deemed as dangerous and was prevented from any further excavations. However, in order to maximize the owners’ profit margin, and of course with the knowledge of the safety inspectors (because such inspectors are sometimes in the pockets of the owners), the mine continued its work without any safety measures being implemented. In the days leading up to the deadly explosion, safety equipments showed methane gas levels upwards of 5 times the acceptable levels but the owners kept open the mines and miners continued mining because they needed to feed their families.
The working conditions of other mines in Iran, though not as ghastly as the one in Baab Nizoo, are only slightly better. Although such explosions have not occurred recently, workers face myriad safety issues, low wages (which is often at the minimum-wage level), and chronic illnesses which often prevents them from pursuing other employment opportunities later on in life. Depending on the type of mine, miners are faced with lung cancer, different types of poisoning, gradual loss of pulmonary function, M.S., impotence, and other illnesses. In addition, they are faced with uncertain job markets working as contractual workers. Below is a short sampling of Iran’s better-known mines:
1- Zarreh Shooran Gold Mine
This is one of the largest gold mines in the Middle East. It only started excavation about 9 months ago but already the miners are crying out for help. Rather than using the usual material in order to purify the mined gold, the owners are using some sort of chemical fertilizer which has resulted in physical damages to miners. The environmental damage is also horrendous. The high level of profitability has led the authorities to completely ignore the consequences to workers and the environment.
2- Agh Darreh Gold Mine
1. The Mine’s Conditions: this is the second largest gold mine in Iran which is located near the Zarreh Shooran mine in the city of Tekaab. Around 600 miners work there in three shifts round the clock. The owners are two former members of the Revolutionary Guards. Again, due to lack of proper oversight, and in order to maximize profits, this mine uses the same chemical fertilizer to purify the mined gold. The fertilizer is bought illegally from the government itself. Inhaling the fertilizer in and of itself leads to a myriad of health issues. However, the problem is exacerbated by lack of safety masks and safety hats which is commonly denied to miners. Most of the miners are local people who work on a contractual basis. They lack any job security and for any day spent working in the mine, many more days are probably taken off their lives. Any major illness requiring medical care will directly lead to their dismissal. Last year, one of the miners who had to use cyanide during 4 years of work at the mine fell ill. Upon requesting help from the owners, he was fired on the spot while his repeated requests to welfare agencies for disability compensations were ignored. He consequently lost his life. Other miners at this mine have similar fates. Many have reported chronic fatigue and impotency.
2. The Miners’ Efforts for their Rights: according to one of the miners working in this mine, the labor rights are printed and secretly distributed by underground labor groups. Dissatisfaction is rampant among the locals at the village of Tekaab where most miners live and where mining is their only means of subsistence. Many workers have decided to form underground unions which have resulted in the mine operators’ severe punishment. In several instances, organizers and protesters have been fired on the spot.
3- Tabass Coal Mine
Following the economic downturn in 2007, and Isfahan Steel’s inability to purchase required coal to run its foundry, many workers of this mine were denied their wages and benefits for a long period of time. Delayed wages led many workers to consider a company-wide strike. However, the management (which consists of many influential members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran) took the upper hand by firing some 1000 miners in 2008. The situation for the remaining miners continued without any resolution which led to a company-wide strike in 2010. Despite many threats by miners to stage sit-ins and strikes there is as yet no definite resolution to this problem.
4- Sangrood Coal Mine in Roodbar
Many of the miners in this mine staged a one-month strike after not receiving their wages and benefits for a period of a year and a half. The mine’s 800 miners are under severe pressure and despite the total absence of any organized work force, they were recently successful in receiving most of their delayed wages.
5- Rahvar Mine in Kerman
There are two groups of miners working in this mine, both on a contractual basis. Any protest by the workers for improvements in wages and safety issues, equipment and workers’ insurance has been met with severe responses by the management. Among contractual miners during 2009, there were those who made about $90 per month, which is equivalent to 1/3 of the minimum wage. Those who suffer injuries are continuously denied any compensation. During last year alone, 4 miners lost their lives in this mine. Recalcitrant miners are routinely forced to transfer to harder jobs. Ironically, this is the best that could happen to a protesting miner! Worse-case scenarios include dismissals or outright lay offs by contractors who run the mine.
Working conditions in other mines
Below is a general overview of working conditions in other mines:
– About half of the entire miners, about 50 workers, in Azbast Hajaat in Birjand are suffering from severe emphysema. This mine is about 35-years-old but some of the equipment used there is about 55-years-old!!
– Last year 4 miners suffocated in Kerman’s Hazhdak Coal Mine. There was a complete news blackout about these deaths.
– The miners strike in Azad Shahr’s Zemestan Yurt Mine ended in 2009, with 7 of the miners being arrested. The strike was due to non-payment of wages and benefits.
– 150 of the 500 miners in Ghaleh Zari’s Copper Mine were laid off recently.
– The future of Angooran Mine, one of the biggest in Iran is shrouded in uncertainty. Production at this mine is in limbo because of the disputes between the Revolutionary Guards which illegally grabbed the mine’s assets and the parliament which has been trying to block the transfer. The mine has had a sordid history. Previously, this mine was sold illegally to some relatives of a few MP’s. Of course the miners are on the verge of being laid off and they cannot fathom their fate or future.
Even though the bulk of the working class in Iran is suffering discrimination and illegality, a look at the miners’ status shows the abysmally inhumane and unbearable working condition they must face. This is due to the fact that historically mines have the highest level of profitability. Another factor affecting their condition is a complete absence of transparent laws and regulations regarding the ownership of mines. (Most mines in Iran are owned by influential members of the elite and/or military and paramilitary organizations which can afford the high rents associated with mining practices.)
Clearly, under these circumstances, the government oversight over operation of the mines has been reduced substantially. Such a blatant lack of oversight has led to severe exploitation of miners by the mine operators without barely spending a dime on their safety and general health. In addition, because of their close ties to the government, mine operators are able to subdue any and all workers’ protests in the most brutal and severe ways imaginable.
In smaller mines whose owners are not necessarily influential members of the elite, conditions are only minutely better. Even though wages are paid on time and working conditions are incrementally better, miners are routinely faced with lay offs due to small fluctuations in the company’s financial stability. Most mines are operated by independent contractors hired by government-owned or privately-owned mines. There is hardly anyone in the business world in Iran who does not know mines are the best place to exploit contractual labor.
Significantly, one should keep in mind the very nature of work in mines which requires the population of a specific locality often with closely-knit family links to work in close proximity to where they reside. Therefore, through educating themselves, miners could quickly organize themselves and demand their legal rights. We have witnessed that miners throughout the world have been pioneers of workers’ struggle in their respective countries. We saw that in South Africa under Apartheid. We also saw that in the United States in early twentieth century. The American UMWA that was formed in 1890 in Columbus, Ohio, provided the prototype for other labor organizations in that country for the repeal of Jim Crow laws and for workers’ solidarity.
There is every indication to witness the replay of such a historic role in the case of Iran’s miners.