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Mining in Chiatura

2014/05/22

In the mines of Georgia, we still wish we had the Soviet Union

The Georgian government buildings are triumphantly waving European flags. The government of President Giorgi Margvelashvili is doing his utmost to join the European Union and NATO. However, not every Georgian is aimed to that direction. In the mining industry of Chiatura, workers still desire to the Russian domination of the past. Here, the portrait of Josef Stalin still hangs on the wall.

Drab dilapidated buildings draw a sharp contrast to the green, forested hills. Along the quiet main road towards the village center, stands an old broken down Russian truck. Around the Georgian town of Chiatura, it seems the clock hasn’t ever moved since the 1950’s . The towns large factories and mines were built in the time of the Soviet Union and it looks like they have been abandoned ever since. Lost to nature. But nothing is less true. The rusty tin funiculars, that connect the factories in the valley and mines in the hills, are still in motion. In these factories are just like then, 24 hours a day, people at work. Nevertheless, the miners are no longer only searching for the mineral manganese which is mined here. Because of the impossible working conditions and low wages, they are in a quest for a fairer policy from their employer for years now.

The retirement age in Georgia is currently set 65, but this age is hardly reached here”, says Roland Abdushelishvili (aged 43) as he secretly gives a tour in one of the manganese processing plants of Chiatura. His right hand is missing three fingers which he lost during a work-related accident. Behind him, the roaring engine of a heavy machine vibrates the entire floor of the building. The few light bulbs are so weak that the greatest part of the building is as dark as the night. For over ten years now, Roland runs night shifts for Georgian Manganese, which is [since 2012] part of the Miami-based Georgian American Alloys. Since the privatization wave of the Georgian government in 2007, it manages all manganese-related businesses in the region. Now the government has waived the mines, workers complain more and more about the poor working conditions, and annually strike in huge numbers.

The view on the mining town of Chiatura from one of the many funiculars.

With 25 lari (10 euros) or a big box of chocolates, at Christmas unions try to win members for themselves. But even though the negotiations are unfair this way, we continue to believe in the fact that God will give us justice some day.

– Roland Abdushelishvili –

Last month action groups gathered again, and even in the capital of Tbilisi, strikes were being held. Without any significant success, which is actually the case every year. The biggest problem is the existence of three unions, where the total of 3,700 miners can join. For many years now these separate unions are in the clinch and nowadays only one of the unions is independent of the management top. A massive strike that stops all the mining work has never been accomplished. “We will never be able to make a stand against our employer in this way,” says Roland has a high position within the only independent union, which is surprisingly the smallest with 500 members. “There are a lot of our people defected, or bribed”, he says. “With 25 lari (10 euros) or a big box of chocolates, at Christmas unions try to win members for themselves. But even though the negotiations are unfair this way, we continue to believe in the fact that God will give us justice some day.”

However, only protection from above doesn’t seem to be enough. Yesterday this was confirmed again when a month after the last victim a worker died during the collapse of one of the mines. “Dug up manganese is being exchanged for human lifes,” Roland says with a desperate look on his face. “For many years, we had no protective clothing or gloves. We only have a helmet which should protect us. However, if an outdated machine explodes in your face, a helmet protects you for nothing.” According to Roland, the hardship and the risk of accidents is greatest in winter because of the lack of glass in the window frames. “The floor freezes,” he says while he points to large puddles of water on the ground. Rinse water is dripping through the skeleton of the building along power lines. Entire floors are flooded. Though, the worst according to Roland is the absence of proper toilets. “We often work 12 consecutive hours in one location. Because we can not leave the machinery unattended we sometimes have to do our business on the floor” he explains as he shows the only working toilet in the 18-storey building. “This has not been cleaned in years.”

We only have a helmet which should protect us. However, if an outdated machine explodes in your face, a helmet protects you for nothing.

– Roland Abdushelishvili –

Georgian Manganese don’t specifically want to respond to the current situation in their mines. However, Maka Kvaratskhelia, spokeswoman for parent company Georgian American Alloys can say something about the year-round issues. “The health of our employees is priority. We know that there were many issues regarding their safety in the distant past. However, we bought the mine in 2012 and it is a time-consuming job to implement safety within a few years, hence we have invested a lot in the infrastructure and equipment and we will continue to invest more”, she says. Though, the situation regarding the recent strikes and the environmental problems which are a plague to the region, remain undiscussed

“It is clear that there are more problems than just the working conditions,” says Shota Gaprindashvili, leader of ‘The Chiaturians Union’, a USAID-funded organization that, among others deal with environmental control in Chiatura. According to the NGO the environment, and human health is at stake for decades. “The decrease of wildlife in the region has gradually reached the point of an ecological disaster,” he says with a disturbing voice. Manganese is toxic in powdered form and the inhalation of large amounts of dust may cause damage to the nervous system and lungs. “The dumping of mining waste has seriously polluted the soil and river water,” Gaprindashvili says as he shows a bottle of murky water. “I can not make coffee or tea here, and the government is doing virtually nothing,” he confirms.

One of the miners inspects a manganese sorting machine.

One of the still remaining portraits of Josef Stalin on a factory wall.

Because even now Georgia has a new government since last year, it is still unclear what the role of this government will be in the troubled Chiatura.  So far, there hasn’t been any attention to the village. After the last strike, only one government observer was appointed as mediator. According to Roland, he has not  shown himself yet to discuss any of the problems in person. The same man takes part to resolve the commotion in Georgian mines elsewhere. “In the gold mines of Kazreti whole villages ceased their work and even children are no longer going to school. The problems there are even much bigger than here, so I think he’s there somewhere.” And so it appears that the new government headed by Giorgi Margvelashvili will continue the struggle in forming a democratic Georgia. Although the president’s policy is progressive and aimed at reconciliation with the European Union and NATO, the people of Chiatura mainly desire to older times.The portrait of Joseph Stalin still hangs on the factory walls.

“Everything was better during the Soviet Union. We even had holidays. During the old times, manganese was mined effectively and our leaders used every gram of the mineral to invest in our own state. Now the companies want to make quick money and the industry is getting destroyed by that philosophy”, Roland says as he shows a new European branded refrigerator, one of the latest investments in the building. “Perhaps under the rule of communism we couldn’t strike, but that was okay since it was not necessary. Back then, the machines were maintained and our security was important. Now I pray for my future every day. I keep on hoping for more real improvements than just a new refrigerator that keeps our lunch cold.”

Roland Abdushelishvili and two of his collegues in the men’s canteen.

Manganese in Georgia

Manganese is a mineral that is used primarily in the production of steel but is also found in medicines and batteries. The Georgian town of Chiatura has one of the largest manganese reserves in the world and annually exports 1.2 million tons. After the mineral is mined, it is being transported to nearby processing plants where large chunks are getting cleaned by thousands of gallons of water pumped from the nearby Qvirila River. After it is diverted to smaller grains, it is transported by train to a nearby plant in Zestafoni to be melted down in big solid blocks. From there most of the Georgian manganese finds it’s way abroad by train and boat.

About this story

I made this longread back in 2014 as one of my first multimedia productions in which I combined text and photography. I shot all of the images with a cheap compact camera because next to a pencil and paper it’s all I had at that time. The written story about Chiatura is also published in the Dutch renowned newspaper Het Parool. For updates on the mines of Chiatura check DFWatch.net, an independent Georgian news website covering the issues around Georgian mines on a regular basis.