In Morocco, the Intense Exploitation of Miners and the Land Continues

COP22 From Rhetoric to Action · This year the COP22 is taking place in Morocco. The south-west of the country is a mining area rich in natural resources: gold, silver, cobalt and manganese are extracted by powerful companies with close ties to power, at the expense of miner’s rights, in a context of major conflicts of interests.

“Our working conditions are deplorable. The Labour code and the statute of miners are not enforced, and sanitary and security regulations are non-existent within the mine”, says Omar L.1, temporary worker in the Imiter mine, in the province of Tinghir in the south-east of Morocco. The silver mine in question is run by the Société métallurgique d’Imiter (SMI), subsidiary to the Managem group (meaning “mines” in Arabic). The company is part of the National Investment Society (SNI), owned by the royal family. The Managem group holds 4 subsidiaries of the 10 most profitable companies in the energy and mines sector in Morocco. Omar L. is cautious. The pressure on miners is considerable, and people fear retaliation from Glomine, their employer. This employment agency works for the Imiter mine. “Mining companies in the zone are doing all they can to suppress any dissent from workers”, he adds. After a brief period, in 2011, the miner’s mobilisations backed down after repression led by union organizations, leading to the fragmentation of workers under different statuses.

An Intense Exploitation of the Land and Miners

The south-east of Morocco abounds in precious ores: manganese, baryte, iron, iron ore, cobalt, salt, zinc, lead, pyrophyllite, silver and gold. The presence of these natural resources has led to intense mining activity. The Drâa Tafilalet region concentrates 40 % of the operating permits, excluding phosphates. During the last five years, 350 licences were issued in the region.

The main mining sites have been Managem property for decades. The Moroccan company owns eight mines in the country; Bou Azar, Imiter, Bleida are the three main active sites, and another site is in preparations in Skoura. The primary mission of Managem’s subsidiaries is to amass the biggest profits for the corporation’s stockholders, as this type of organisation allows the concealment of the royal family’s possessions, and the king himself. In 2011, however, the case caught up with the royal company. Human resources’ management style is put in question by workers, and dealing with the “embarrassing” working conditions issue has been delegated to employment agencies.

The Bou Azar mine, 550 km from Casablanca, is a historical site for Managem. Cobalt and gold extraction started in 1930 during the French occupation. The royal holding suspended its activity in 1983, before resuming four years later. Workers were offered their former job, this time through an employment agency, and a cycle of job precariousness thus started. “Mortal accidents in the mine are common. When a miner working for the subcontractor dies on the site, the family receives the body without any inquiry being opened. Burial costs are deducted from other worker’s pay and the family rarely receives compensation”, accuses Hamid M., a former worker fired for union matters. According to a calculation of unionised workers, 11 deaths were recorded between 2005 and 2012. The causes are varied: collapsing rocks, machine accidents, use of explosives in forbidden or dangerous areas, abandoned mine wells. “If the mine had instated a health or security commission as required by law, most of these incidents could have been avoided”, says an anonymous source in Agdez, in the south-west of the country. Managem management has refused our proposals for an interview.

When it isn’t deadly, working in mines has health repercussions. Pulmonary afflictions are the main type of disease the miners suffer from, in particular silicosis. In every mine in the region, interim miners regularly protest against obstacles they face when seeking financial support to cover costs of the occupational disease. “Occupational doctors receive money from mining companies to refuse our cases”, accuses Hamid L.

In Imini, a southern city near Ouarzazate, another Managem subcontractor, the Sharifian Mining Studies (SACEM /S.A.) has been exploiting a manganese mine since 1929. Silicosis is the principal cause of occupational diseases among workers. “If a worker exhibits signs of the sickness he is exposed to the wrongful termination over bogus charges”, bemoans Mustapha A., a miner in Imini. To avoid covering workers’ occupational diseases, the subcontractors can simply proceed to terminations. Faced with these difficult working conditions, miners have attempted to demand the enforcement of the law on different sites.

Bou Azar’s Spring

April 2011: the Arab Spring is flourishing in the region. Interim workers in the cobalt mine of Bou Azar revolt against management and the union it has close ties with. A sit-in is organised on April 22. “Such an action was unthinkable”, remembers one of the striking workers, who have since been removed by the company. On April 24, 60 workers launched a new union on the mining site, affiliated with the Democratic Confederation of Labour (CDT). These miners work for two subcontracting companies: Top Forage and Agzoumi. As job security is low, workers demand the right to weekly breaks and paid holidays, compensation for working accidents, registration to social security and stable contracts for temporary workers—some of whom have been working in the mine for 10 years. These demands reveal the difficult working conditions of miners, some of whom have fought for six years to obtain an increase in the quantity of soap offered after each working day !

This rebellion went on for about a year and a half. It ended with small gains: the distribution of protective masks for underground miners and delivery of professional cards. Some miners are suspended, others fired. In October 2012, three are condemned to prison sentences for “obstruction of the freedom of employees to work” in line with article 288 of the Penal Code. One of them tells us, “management not only fired us. They made an example out of us and prevent any mine in Morocco from ever hiring us”. Another former miner concludes, “the message is clear, in His Majesty’s mines, there is no place for protest”.

Mohamed Atmani, secretary general of the Democratic Confederation of Labour (CDT) in Agdez confirms, “temporary workers can no longer organise union actions. Only unions with close ties with management can express complaints on the site.” The situation in Bou Azar is no exception. Companies rely massively on subcontracting, a phenomenon in conjunction with the degradation of working conditions in mines. In Imiter, no less than 12 subcontractors work side by side. “I have been a temporary worker for 7 years”, adds Omar L. He says, “Our wages are three times lower than those of the parent company’s, not to mention the poor working conditions and lower social benefits.”

Imiter is one of the rare sites where miners obtained rights, thanks to a notorious struggle in the beginning of the 1990s. Imiter is an exception. Thanks to the militancy of the parent company’s miners’ union, they obtained the end of subcontracting for the entire extractive sector of management. “Our work consists preparing the passage for ores, excavating or lighting tunnels. These are still dangerous tasks. Every time we go underground, we don’t know if we’ll come back up alive or dead”, Omar L. worries.

In this context, miner protection by the State can be summed up to unenforced laws.

The ILO accuses Morocco

Morocco waited eighteen years before ratifying the 176 th international convention on security and health in mines in 2013. Moroccan legislation for workers’ protection in mines includes the Labour code and the Statute for employees of mining companies, adopted in 1960, which only applies to companies employing more than 300 workers. Big entities have many strategies to avoid applying this statute, and small companies and subcontractors are excluded de facto, thus the criteria have been denounced by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Concerning accidents, professional diseases and dangerous incidents in the mining sites, the organisation asks of Morocco to improve rules and safety measures. To enforce these demands, the Moroccan ministry of energy and mines must confront the all-powerful royal holding.

Morocco’s commitments at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) fail to even mention the issue. This silence can be explained by the power of the Sharifian Phosphate Office in the national economy, known to be a major polluter. Managem can also count on a powerful ally, as the former minister for energy and mines, Amina Benkhadra, sits on its board. The only problem being she currently runs the National Office for Hydrocarbons and Mines (ONHYM)...

1The miners we interviewed wished to stay anonymous. Their names have been changed.