“The hygiene here in the camp is intolerable – we don’t have toilet paper, we don’t have hand sanitizer, we don’t even have soap to wash our hands; we are terrified of catching it [coronavirus].”
(Ottawa) On March 17, rank and file mineworkers at Barrick Gold’s “Lama Project” in Argentina sent out a media alert demanding that the Canadian company allow them to leave the camp and go home to their families, following fears of a COVID-19 outbreak at the camp.
Workers noted that upon arriving at the camp to start their shifts yesterday, they were informed that a coronavirus alert had been activated, and rumours were circulating that an infected person had been at the camp. “All the controls, everything was a disaster...they [Barrick] aren’t telling us anything, we think we have the virus here at the camp and they’re just covering up the information,” said one worker. They note that they have been threatened with termination if they leave voluntarily.
Echoing their concerns, the national secretariat of the Argentine Mine Workers Society (AOMA in Spanish) released a statement demanding that all operating mines in the country be suspended until March 31st. Hector Laplace, the General Secretary of the union, stated to the Argentinean press that “it is not the moment to analyze economic questions when workers' lives are being put at risk,” noting that if this was not done, “direct action would be taken to ensure this is the case.”
However, the Union Association of the Hierarchical, Professional and Technical Personnel of Argentine Mining Activity (ASIJEMIN in Spanish), simply welcomed the industry “to take all sanitation measures necessary to contain the virus,” a position supported by the Argentine Chamber of Commerce.
These mining camps are isolated and represent a high risk for infection. The majority of mining operations in South America have at least some portion of foreign employees, especially in the higher echelons. As well, the mining camps are isolated and in some cases very far from populations with adequate medical facilities. For example, San Juan, the closest city to the Lama camp, is approximately 370km away as the crow flies, but can take between 5 and 7 hours to get to by land. Camps also often have many workers on shift at any given time, working in confined spaces, with many sharing bathroom facilities and communal sleeping and eating facilities. Finally, the sanitary conditions at mining camps, like at the company’s neighbouring Veladero mine, can be very precarious especially for general workers and contracted employees. According to Argentine anthropologist Lautaro Clemenceau, “Conditions can often differ greatly…in terms of access to services and sanitary conditions at mining camps in the region.”
Miners at the Lama camp said the conditions of the camp are deplorable: “The hygiene here in the camp is intolerable – we don’t have toilet paper, we don’t have hand sanitizer, we don’t even have soap to wash our hands; we are terrified of catching it [coronavirus].”
As more cases of the virus are detected in Argentina, it is only a matter of time before the mining industry also takes a direct hit to its operations. To date, Argentine authorities have reported 79 cases of infection, and all are imported.
The Lama project is part of Barrick’s controversial Pascua Lama transborder gold exploration project, which straddles the Andes between Chile and Argentina. Barrick announced earlier this year that after years of generating conflict and tension among affected communities in both countries, the project was no longer economically viable.
Barrick’s Veladero mine, also controversial, shares the Lama camp and employs nearly 4,500 workers, including 40 foreigners.
“We want to be safe and sound, just like Barrick’s motto says. If this is their motto, then they should respect it...We want to go home and be with our families,” noted one of the workers. “We are humans, we aren’t animals. This is why we need to be sent home urgently.”
On March 6th, eleven days before the workers' media statement, the company released a statement to the press noting it was “prepared for COVID19.”
Canadian mining companies with operations in Argentina could be affected by a nationwide temporary shutdown as in neighbouring country Peru, or via direct actions like wildcat strikes, as the AOMA has noted. Companies with operations in the country include Barrick Gold, Pan American Silver, Yamana Gold, Goldcorp, and SSR Mining.
- Kirsten Francescone, MiningWatch Canada, [email protected]