Is SA’s mining industry too deep in the COVID-19 crisis?
Large mining companies that rely on local labor or work close to remote communities have taken immediate action to curb the spread of the coronavirus and avoid a public health crisis that could seriously damage their business reputation..
From the Australian outback to Canada’s arctic desert to the Andes mountain ranges, global mining companies are changing how they operate to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Investors are already assessing the feasibility of their investments in mining companies due to their negative impact on the environment and climate change, and a serious outbreak of COVID-19 among local residents near mining enterprises may further force them to reconsider their investment decisions..
The Norwegian Welfare Fund blacklisted some of the world’s largest mining companies last week due to carbon dioxide emissions. EY has rated social licensing of mining companies as the highest risk for the industry in the past two years.
In Australia, mining companies are some of the largest employers for Aboriginal people, with an average life expectancy of nearly 10 years shorter than other Australians and may be at increased risk of heart and kidney disease and diabetes..
Mining companies tend to send employees from major cities to work in remote areas using an approach known as FIFO (fly in fly out), a rotational approach.
South32 said it strictly separated FIFO personnel at its GEMCO manganese mine in northern Australia from local workers, including local Aninidilakwa residents in Groot Eilandt, and expects these measures to be in place for several months..
«We work in close proximity to several indigenous communities that have vulnerable people. It’s very important that everyone gets it right.», – said Jo-ann scarini, Vice President of Mine Employment.
Australia, one of the most successful countries in the fight against the spread of COVID-19, had just over 7,000 infections and 99 deaths as of May 20..
Because of the risk to people with underlying health problems, Australian mining giant BHP has forced all employees over 65 to work from home. This age has been lowered to 50 for higher-risk workers such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The company asked all of its contractors to do the same..
«(We) actively encourage them to take the steps we are taking to support our high-risk employees during the COVID-19 pandemic», – BHP said in a statement.
Rival Rio Tinto has a similar policy, and it also takes blood tests for antibodies and checks the temperature of workers before they travel to remote areas to reduce the risk of infection..
Executive Director Fortescue Elizabeth gaines said the Australian iron ore company assesses the health of its workers on an individual basis rather than focusing on groups within its staff.
In Arctic Canada in Nunavut, a predominantly indigenous region mostly composed of Inuit, mining companies have slowed down to limit the risk of an outbreak.
Gold miner Agnico Eagle, Nunavut’s largest private employer, sent home about a fifth of its 2,500 workforce before shutting down operations and halting exploration..
In Peru, MMG Ltd provided food and hygiene packages to 6,000 families in the Apurimac region around its huge Las Bambas copper mine in the Andes to discourage them from going to the city for shopping due to the potential threat of infection..
Australian mining company spokesperson says there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Las Bambas.
However, there was an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Antamina mine in Peru, owned by BHP and the multinational commodity trading company Glencore. More than 200 cases were discovered in April during testing of personnel and contractors, production was stopped.
Environmental and social investment (ESG) analysts say they are watching mining companies closely to track how they are coping with the coronavirus crisis, given the potential risks to business reputation..
«The outbreak would lead to further scrutiny of the mining industry’s response to COVID-19 from local authorities and civil society, said Ziggy yu, investment analyst at ESG at Aberdeen Standard Investments, which owns shares in mining companies. – In the event of a major outbreak, we will assess both its financial and social impact and take this into account in our investment decisions», – he said.
Paul Mitchell, an expert in mining and metallurgy at EY, said the safety culture in mining companies helped stop the spread of the coronavirus.
«It’s true that the mining industry brand has suffered in recent years, he said. – When we talk about safety these days, we talk about zero harm, so we are not talking about accidents, but about health and well-being».
In the Canadian Ojibway Duncan michano of the Pic River First Nation said Barrick Gold continued to pay workers at the Hemlo mine after Ontario fields shut down for weeks in April to protect against pandemic.
Community members who worked at the mine were upset that they were not offered to stay at home without losing their paychecks, he said..
«We tried to shut down (the mine) completely, but we don’t have any legal means to do that, ”Michano said. – The province has declared it a vital activity so they can do what they want».
For some indigenous workers, it is not possible to stop working. «The indigenous Taltan people of British Columbia, Canada, have partnered with Australia’s Newcrest Mining to keep the Red Chris copper and gold mine open.», – said Chad day, Taltan central government president.
Day said there were fears that the shutdown would leave 120 local residents unemployed, exacerbating social problems.. «It was not an easy decision», – he noted.