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Government gives-in to mines’ pressure

Mohloai Mpesi

The Lesotho mining sector’s pressure on government towards the Covid-19 regulations has finally paid off.

The Lesotho Chamber of Mining and the Storm Mountain Diamonds cried foul on the heavy Covid-19 confining regulations imposed by the government after the second total lockdown announced last week.

The two entities sought intervention from the Ministry of Mining lamenting the stringent regulations endorsed in last week’s Alert Level Red Lockdown announced by the Prime-Minister Dr Moeketsi Majoro.

As per the regulations, mines had to, inter alia, test every employee on change of shift cycles as well as housing all the members of staff on site at the same time, a feat which the mines claimed would make their operations virtually impossible.   

The Storm Mountain Diamonds Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Lesotho Chambers of Mining Chairman, Mohale Ralikariki told this publication that after a streak of follow-ups and consultations with the Ministry of Mining, their efforts finally yielded positive results as their operation was elevated to essential services category thus allowing them to operate.

“We received a feedback from the Minister of Mining, he said the mines are going to be categorised under essential services during lockdown in order to balance the economy as well as saving lives.

“He said they will go all out to ensure that we operate without obstacles or any predicaments, that’s positive and good news for the mining industry. We applaud the initiative by the government. This is going to ease our work,” he said adding that they are waiting for a written response.

“The response was in a verbal form, but it was official. We are still waiting for the written version,” he said.

“Being categorised in essential services does not mean we have to relax, we still have to continue working in a way that we used to, we have to abide by the set Covid-19 safety protocols and strengthen our health security for when the situation gets worse.

“We are still waiting for antigen rapid testing machine purchased overseas, it will probably arrive next week. We have to also extend our helping hands to the government and ensure full compliance with the lockdown regulations,” he said.

“What I realised is that the government is keen to keep the economy running while they are also saving lives, so they are trying to balance the two,” he said.

Ralikariki indicated that their argument was that their mines are open pits and are in outer space which makes the pandemic unable to super spread. They also argued that their mines do not have enough facilities to house the entirety of workers and neither would they be able to test all employees at the same time especially owing to the turn-around time in the return of results after a test.

“All our mines are open pits, unlike in South Africa where they work underground. It is bizarre how the textile factories and banks are allowed to operate with light restrictions on the Covid-19 regulations yet they work in closed environments while the mines are given strict regulations.

“That makes our work to be difficult. The regulations state that every employee should be tested every time before shift starts. It is difficult to test all the workers because they are many and it is expensive to make those tests. It is more like telling a taxi operator to test every passenger before boarding the taxi and take only negative ones, when will he have time to ferry the passengers when he is busy looking to test people?

“The government says all employees should be housed in the mine campus and should regularly be tested.

“Most of the time we try to meet our employees halfway hence some stay at mine apartments where two people used to share a room, right now it is difficult for two to live in one room, and we don’t have enough accommodation, it will be difficult to secure accommodation for all the people,” he said further stating that they are currently operating in line with the last year mitigation regulations.

“The regulations are made strict to protect the lives of people but it then affects the economy of the country because the mines play a pivotal role in boosting the country’s economy.

“They have made the regulations to be tighter than the first mitigations that we had (first lockdown last year),” he said

“So to make a total lockdown on the mines is very difficult because there are many operations and departments and it would take a very long time, even resuming the work would take long.

He further pointed out that, “The economy of this country would be seriously impacted because the labour cost of every mine is over M100 million. One employee is able to make a shop or supermarket from his savings and hire other people. Mines play a vital role in the economy, let alone the royalties that go to the government after diamond sales,” he said.

Newsday learned that Kao mining which is owned by Storm Mountain Diamond, has around 700 employees working different shifts.

In a letter signed by chairman of the board, Robert Cowley, the company states that it will be unable to pay full salaries and benefits of the employees should the regulations be enforced.

“We refer to the Health (Covid-19) (Risk Determination and mitigation Measures) (No.2) Regulations that were published on 14 January 2021.

“Despite engagements with the mining sector, the regulations, as regards mining, were essentially almost unchanged from the now repealed regulations that were published on January 13 2021. This is very disappointing for the mining sector, because compliance with these regulations makes it virtually impossible to continue with operations.

“As previously indicated, it is not feasible to operate in compliance with the operating parameters set out for mining in schedule 1 of the Regulations, which requires mining companies to introduce mandatory Covid-19 testing for all the employees on site,” the letter reads.

“Mining has to be included as an essential service in the regulations, without this it is questionable whether employees travelling to and from the mine may lawfully cross districts, whether employees and emergency service providers can enter the country, and whether the mine transport can travel outside curfew hours, which is required.

“In the circumstances SMD is left with no option but consider shutting down its operations temporarily, due to circumstances beyond its reasonable control. This will have unfortunate consequences for its stakeholders, including GOL and its employees. Due to the stoppage of operations last year and the slump in the diamond market, SMD will not be in financial position to continue paying employees their full salaries and benefits should it enter into another period of care and maintenance.

“We have proven through our statistics that, in the absence of mass-testing facilities, the mine can be operated safely based on current protocols in place, with the focus on proper screening, social distancing (we only have single accommodation on site), frequent fumigation of communal facilities and sanitising regimes. This has been demonstrated during the first wave of the pandemic and now with the surge of coronavirus cases in the country.

“Lesotho mines are open pits operations and employees work in open workplaces, mostly not in close contact and not in closed environment like in textile factories, banks and other sectors that are allowed to operate during lockdown with no stringent mandatory testing of employees imposed on them. By virtue of working arrangements, these open pit mines are far safer than other sectors and due consideration should be given to that,” the letter reads.

However, the Lesotho Chamber of Mines letter stated that they wish to continue with very strict screening measures and testing protocols that they have been practising since May 2020. The letter states that it is not only impractical to exercise the requirements imposed by the government but it is also financially and administratively unfeasible.

“The mining industry highly appreciates the continuing efforts made by the government to protect the lives of Basotho nation and to keep the economy running in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic. The mining sector plays a key role in the economic development of this country and it is one of the important contributors to government fiscas. Massive jobs and revenue losses as a result of closure of the mine could exacerbate the social and economic threat that this country is currently facing and we welcome the decision to keep the mining operations running during this 14 days lockdown.

“However, we wish to bring to your attention that the requirements prescribed to the mining industry are tactically, financially and administratively impractical.

“Mines are required to accommodate all staff on-site. Mine employees work shifts, it is practically impossible to accommodate all mine staff on site as the shift cycles require them to rotate, such that when others are on duty, others are at home. They cannot be kept on site all at the same time as required by the regulations,” the letter reads.

“As part of social distancing, mines employees who are on duty are currently accommodated in single status accommodation with ensuite facilities or regulated times for those using communal facilities to allow intermittent fumigation.

“No mine has capacity to accommodate all its employees on site at the same time,” the letter continues.

“Mines are required to remain operating with Covid-19 negative tested employees and introduce mandatory Covid-19 testing for all employees at commencement of shift cycles- medically this may sound to be a good measure, but financially and administratively is impractical and detrimental to the industry.

“Mines employees are residing in different locations across the country and the mines arrange buses to get employees to site from their respective homes during the change of shifts. In an attempt to comply with this requirement, the probable option would be to arrange for those employees to be tested in the nearest testing centres. There is no capacity for rapid testing, therefore they will have to do PCR testing, then return and wait for the results. Most of them will be using public transport and by the time they get the results they would have had contact with so many people that even if results come back negative after a day or two, the whole testing would be futile.

“Subjecting employees to queue up in testing facilities before commencement of shift cycle will lead to congestion and increase the risk of contracting the virus.

“The other probable option would be to transport employees to the mine and before change of shifts, then subject the arriving employees to PCR testing. This approach similarly will create congestion as hundreds to thousands of employees will be on site, with others preparing to leave, others arriving and going through testing.  After testing, results will be available in 24 hours, where will the mine keep the arriving shift while waiting for the results. There is no mine with capacity to accommodate all employees on site at the same time as highlighted above. This will create a super spreader situation and administrative nightmare for the mines’ management.

“Currently, during change of shift cycles, all mines employees are screened before boarding mine buses and leaving for site. Screening forms are filled in at the pick-up points and temperatures of all taken before getting into the buses. These protocols have been implemented by the mines for the past seven months as part of early detection measures. From the pick-up points, employees with symptoms are returned home for isolation and to seek medical advice.

“Screening is redone on arrival at the mine. Regular screening while on site is done until the employees leave site at the end of the shift. All employees with symptoms are being PCR tested with contact tracing on all positive cases. Suspects are immediately isolated on site while waiting for the results.

“As highlighted above, the country does not currently have the rapid test capability to test all employees before they go to site. This requirement will compel the mining companies to suspend operations and put the operating mines under care and maintenance. The mining operations are still trying to recover from the first lockdown and if these requirements are not urgently revised, more mines will close operations, leading to significant jobs and revenue loss,” the letter reads.            

“It is recommended to continue with very strict screening measures and testing protocols as exercised by the mines since May 2020 along with adherence to Covid-19 safety protocols, maintaining social distancing, mask wearing, sanitising and fumigation of the workplace,” the letter reads.

Meanwhile, the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Mining, Tšokolo Maina confirmed that the minister of mining, Serialong Qoo tabled the matter before cabinet on Tuesday and was directed that the mines should operate under essential services.

“The minister of mining tabled the issue before cabinet yesterday which decided to categorise the sector under essential services.  

“Right now, the ministry is working with NACOSEC and Ministry of Health to address the matter,” he said.

“In the matrix of NACOSEC, the mining sector is categorised under essential services and it was a surprise to learn that it does not fall under essentials in the regulations.

“I am not sure if the regulations are going to be revised, but there is reconsideration to classify the sector in the essential services. So the mining sector will continue to work under the protocols; testing and screening, isolation of suspects and others. The challenge that still stands is about the issue of accommodation and housing the employees in one campus.  

“Government said if the mines should operate, then they should confine their people in the campus and should be tested regularly for 14 days, if not then they should change the shifts and test every shift.

“In the Storm Mountain Diamonds letter that I saw, they were complaining about capacity that they can’t house all the employees at once and that they don’t have enough capacity and financials to test all the employees as the government said. So they sought intervention from the Minister in the Prime Minister’s office. The letter addressed to us is written cc which means that we are not directly included, it’s only for our information to know about the decision that they have made, but since we are involved as the ministry, we decided to work on the matter and salvage the problem,” Maina said.

“We contacted the Minister of Health and we are still waiting for a response,” he said.

This paper contacted the Ministry of Health in regard to a progression of the said matter. The Deputy Principal Secretary Lesimole Moletsane confirmed that they received the letter over the weekend and they are currently working on it.

“We received the letter over the weekend and we are still working on the matter. Currently there is nothing that I can say,” she said.  

Moletsane further directed this reporter to talk to the Spokesperson of the ministry Tumisang Mokoai who said he has not set eyes upon any letter from the mining sector.

“Matters regarding regulations are set by NACOSEC, so I think you should run down to NACOSEC and they will help you, here we deal with health related matters. “We have not received the letter regarding the mining issues, if it was I could have seen the letter,” he said.     

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