The South African Federation of Trade Unions is appalled at the disaster at a mine in Myanmar which has taken the lives of at least 170 workers and dozens more who are feared dead.
The tragedy, on 2 July 2020, occurred in Hpakant, a remote area near the border of China, 950km north of Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon. It is the centre of the world’s biggest and most lucrative jade mining industry.
A hillside collapsed in heavy monsoon rains and a strong stream of mud and water swept away workers on a jade mine. The landslide also destroyed around half of the village, where the families of the miners stay.
Billions of dollars worth of jade is being mined on bare hillsides by poor, casual workers in one of the world’s poorest countries, with massive unemployment. They are forced by poverty, to scrape a living by any means possible, even in these most perilous conditions.
They come from all over the country, many of them from impoverished ethnic minority communities. As photos of the dead circulated on social media, Facebook users began to identify workers lifeless bodies from hundreds of miles from home.
This tragedy’s not an isolated event. About 100 people were killed in a 2015 collapse in Hpakant, which led to calls to regulate the industry. Another 50 died in 2019. Yet nothing has been done to avoid such disaster . The Mining Workers Federation of Myanmar president Thaung Nyun, says: “The government should thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and prevent another disaster. Both employers and the government must put people before profit.”
But employers are government have not only failed to stop such tragedies;
they are those most responsible for them. Environmental watchdog Global Witness has called the landslide “a damning indictment of the government’s failure to curb reckless and irresponsible mining practices”.
It claims that Myanmar’s jade mining sector “is dominated by powerful military-linked companies, armed groups and cronies that have been allowed to operate without effective social and environmental controls for years”.
It singled out for blame the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kai’s National League for Democracy party, which came to power in 2016:
“Five years after taking office and pledging to reform the corrupt sector, the National League for Democracy has yet to implement desperately needed reforms, allowing deadly mining practices to continue and gambling the lives of vulnerable workers in the country’s jade mines.
“Neither a promised new gemstone law, passed by parliament in 2019, nor a gemstone policy that has been in production for several years have yet been implemented.”
SAFTU supports the demand by IndustriALL Global Union mining director Glen Mpufane that “the Myanmar government should ratify ILO Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines, and facilitate unionisation at all mine sites for the workers to have a collective voice to improve health and safety.”
Myanmar is one of the world’s biggest sources of jade and the industry is booming from demand for the green gem from neighbouring China.
South African mine workers know well from their own experiences that expensive and profitable jewellery is produced through the exploitation of workers who toil in hazardous and unhealthy conditions to dig out gold, diamonds and jade for paid wages that are a tiny fraction the price at which the finished products are sold.
This tragedy also highlights the huge problem facing workers in South Africa and the world – the casualisation of labour, which leaves million of unorganised, poor and desperate workers defenceless against ruthless employers like the mine owners in Hpakant. The need for strong, democratic unions has never been greater.
SAFTU sends condolences to the families and communities devastated by this disaster and a message of solidarity to the workers of Myanmar in their fight for healthy and safe working conditions, secure employment and a living wage.