Mining camp deaths

Literally dozens of men, many of them just into adulthood have lost their lives in the danger-filled gold fields of the country in the last few years. Though now on the downswing, the heights that the price of gold reached in the last five years or so drew legions of men and women from all walks of life to try their luck in this casino of gold and diamonds. Many have not lived to enjoy the life they were hoping for.

Last week two young men, Junior Williams and Leon D’ Aguiar, barely 19 and 20, perished in the waters of the Cuyuni River after a mishap on the return crossing. Both fell into the river and drowned. They had not been working for very long in the business and were obviously not experienced. However, the allure of reasonable returns in an economy that is not generating sufficient jobs drew them to the industry.

Many deaths in the mining fields have occurred as a result of disorderly behaviour; oftentimes alcohol-fuelled displays of passion leading to fatal stabbings, shootings and beatings. Many of these have gone unsolved as the assailants usually flee in any of numerous directions or lie low until the search is called off. It is an area in which the police have not been very successful and many families have been torn apart by the feeling of a denial of justice. It is something that the relatively new police hierarchy has to address with urgency and dedication.

Whereas there may be a credible attempt to investigate the disorderly murders, very little seems to occur in relation to other deaths. These would mostly fall into the category of the drownings, mining pit collapses, boat accidents and fatalities from malaria and other diseases. In these cases, families are left to their own devices and are bombarded by numerous versions of what transpired and left to pick the sense from the nonsense. Ultimately, they are left completely unsatisfied and disbelieving over the demise of their loved one.

The dozens of fatalities that have occurred in this category should properly be classified as workplace deaths and should be rigorously investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health department of the Ministry of Labour. There is no sign of this occurring and no evidence of any report of this kind being presented to Parliament. Even in more formal work settings on the coast, labour standards fall far below what is required and can lead to deaths and serious injuries. The construction sector has been cited as one of those areas where there is inadequate and lax supervision. One can only imagine the standards or lack thereof that goldfields workers labour under and the daily risks they face.

In the case of the two young men who died last week, should it not have been mandatory that they were outfitted with life jackets while crossing the river? Mining pit accidents have also exposed the recklessness of operators in the industry where excavation is done in a wholly unsafe manner. Unsafe gradients have led to pits caving in on many miners.

All of these deaths that have been occurring should have been thoroughly investigated and where necessary the employers prosecuted. Is the ministry addressing these or is it content with paying lip service to annual celebrations of Occupational Health and Safety Day?

As the representative body of miners, it is high time that the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) and the ministry begin addressing how to limit work related deaths in the mining communities. Clearly, more inspectors need to be on the ground and liaising with the mines commission and the natural resources ministry. What are the basic standards that labourers at these mining camps can expect? Where is it enshrined and who is trying to enforce it?

The GGDMA and its members have to ensure also that in their quest for gold and precious minerals that they are doing their utmost to protect life and limb in these operations.

The onus in the first instance is on the Ministry of Labour and it must begin publicly addressing this matter. Encompassed within the deaths in the mining fields is the category of youth working in dangerous and hazards circumstances. The Ministry would be acutely aware of this as it is an area that is paid great attention to by the International Labour Organisation and member bodies. The fisheries industry is another area of dangerous and hazardous work in which a number of youth have died in recent years. Here again, there is no body of work to show that the Ministry has been proactive in trying to improve working conditions.

These ongoing deaths in the mining industry just can’t be seen as inevitable or as occupational hazards. The ministry and the miners association need to take effective measures to ensure safe working conditions in mining camps.

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