Australia-based Syrah Resources has announced that a restart of operations at its Twigg graphite mine in Balama, Cabo Delgado province, is “underway” while striking workers continue to protest nepotism and corruption.
The strike began on September 7 with local workers demanding health insurance and pay parity with mine employees from Maputo and other southern provinces. According to a statement from Syrah published on 26 September, the company closed the mine and removed much of its workforce on 20 September “out of caution for the safety of Syrah’s employees and contractors.”
In a follow-up statement published on 11 October, Syrah claimed employees and contractors are returning to Balama, with “production and logistics movements recommencing shortly.”
Balama district administrator Edson Lino reportedly told state broadcaster Rádio Moçambique that the strike ended last week. However, Zitamar understands that many workers are still on strike and it is unclear how regular production can resume without them.
“At the moment we are meeting with the district government to continue the talks,” one of the leaders of the strike told Zitamar on Wednesday. “The managers are forcing the resumption of activities. If the talks do not yield results, we will close the mine again, so that even minimum services, such as maintenance won’t function.”
“We need the shareholders to come, that is, the Australians. Negotiations with the company have been suspended. The contact link at the moment is the administrator but we don’t want the administrator, we want the shareholders to intervene directly,” the strike leader said.
The discovery of world-class graphite reserves in northern Mozambique have given hope that Mozambique can continue to profit from extracting minerals even as the world tries to transition away from fossil fuels. Graphite, particularly the kind produced by Syrah at Balama, is a key ingredient in batteries used in electric vehicles, a booming industry.
In the last year, Syrah Resources has signed offtake agreements with Tesla and Ford to provide graphite material for the batteries in their electric cars. The United States Department of Energy has recognised the strategic significance of the Balama mine in weaning American industries off Chinese graphite, and provided a $102 million loan in July to help Syrah expand its facility in Vidalia, Louisiana, that will process its graphite into battery anodes that it can supply to car manufacturers.
But Aimee Boulanger, executive director of The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, told Zitamar that while “some communities may welcome the opportunities that could come with mining … they are asking companies who promise benefits to meet higher standards.”
“The communities who live nearest to the mining of these materials are wise to ask how increased extraction will impact their wellbeing in a world already living with the impacts of climate change,” she said.
Syrah insists the strike at its mine is “illegal” as it was instigated without the involvement of the Internal Union Committee — the recognised trade union with which the company negotiates workplace conditions. The company said on 11 October that it has the government’s support in “ensuring that illegal industrial action is not permitted to interrupt Balama operations.”
But strike leaders in Balama told Zitamar that they have lost faith in the union to represent their interests and they refuse to negotiate with the Mozambican management whom they accuse of hiring their friends and relatives, discriminating against local workers and abusive behaviour.
The strikers claim that non-locals, mainly from the southern provinces of Maputo and Tete, are paid considerably more than workers from Balama, even when they are still apprentices. A payroll document from 2018 found by workers, and seen by Zitamar, appears to show the wages of all Balama workers fixed at 7,000 meticais per month.
Furthermore, the payroll assigns a 7th grade education to all Balama workers, which the strike leaders say is incorrect as most of them have a 12th grade education. According to the payroll, one worker from Tete with a 12th grade education was paid 70,000 meticais per month. The strikers claim the pay rates have changed since 2018 but the disparities continue.
They also claim that no worker from Balama has health insurance but those from the south do.
Alleged nepotism, bullying, and sexual harassment
A Syrah spokesperson told Zitamar that “Syrah has numerous processes in place for escalation of any grievances, including whistle-blower procedures,” and the company “has a strong history of considering grievances in conjunction with the Union and Government.”
Strikers told Zitamar that they have on various occasions submitted complaints accusing individual managers of nepotistic hiring, bullying and sexual harassment but no action was taken.
“We wrote letters to have these people removed, fired or transferred. These documents were signed by all the people who had planned to go to the protest if nothing was done,” a strike leader said. “At least five letters were submitted. The documents were submitted to the union. The union sent it to human resources and nothing was done.”
The management have suggested that these complaints have not been acted on as they were not submitted through the proper procedures. In the summary document of a meeting between Twigg managers and union representatives dated 8 September, seen by Zitamar, the chief operating officer affirmed that “any problem with the falsification of documentation and misbehaviour on the part of the leadership would have to be channelled through the existing reporting channels, and that they would be duly investigated.”
However, he goes on to say the company “will not accept any type of information submitted without proof to denigrate” managers, who “have the full confidence not only of the executive director of operations but also of the board of directors.”
A Syrah spokesperson then told Zitamar that these investigations have in fact already been completed. “All grievances through the life of the project, and in this instance, have been investigated. The company has found no evidence to support the accusations made against certain senior employees,” the spokesperson said.
Striking workers said they will not return to the mine until the managers in question are fired, calling on Australian owners to intervene. One strike leader told Zitamar: “We want the project management and human resources positions to be replaced by Australians. We have no problems with the Australians.”
Article updated on 12 October 2022 at 17:00 CAT to more accurately quote the strike leader in the fifth paragraph.
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