Interview: Brazilian unions are still struggling to guarantee the indemnification of workers who were victims of the collapse of the dam in Mariana

08 May 2017 03:41

On November 5th , 2015, Brazil was shocked to hear the news on the collapse of the Fundão dam, at the Germano plant in the city of Mariana, state of Minas Gerais. The dam was the responsibility of the company Samarco whose owners are the Brazilian Vale S.A. and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton. The mud of the dam came down through the Doce River until the state of Espirito Santo resulting in 19 dead, over 2,000 unemployed workers, 40 cities got without water and affecting the lives of 424 thousand people.  

Hereunder, the interview with José Antônio da Cruz, president of SITICOP, which represents the workers of construction in Minas Gerais and an affiliate to Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) , about the accident and the answer of the trade union movement to it. 

BWI: What happened on November 5th, 2015 and what was the answer of the union to that?

José Antônio da Cruz: For many years SITICOP has been working to inspect companies and fight for the rights of construction workers subcontracted by mining companies in the operation, maintenance and technical services of mineral tailings dams in Minas Gerais. In our state, the mining sector has more than 400 tailings dams. The state has geography of mountains and in the last 10 years there have been several accidents in these dams. SITICOP, in recent years, has been struggling to regulate work on tailings dams and to guarantee the rights of workers.

The situation of the workers is of confinement in the area of the mining, without access of the union to the worksite, with excess of working hours and without respected to security standards. In recent years, we have made several complaints, strikes and lawsuits in defense of the rights of outsourced workers, but even so, the miners companies maintain a policy of total disregard for the law and labor standards.

At SAMARCO these issues reached their extreme point in 2006, and the Labor Public Prosecutors, considering all the complaints, demanded from SAMARCO the compliance of the law and labor standards, foreclosing illegal outsourcing in dams. SAMARCO had to sign a Conduct Adjustment Agreement (TAC in Portuguese), but in a cynical way it continued to disrespect the laws. In 2008, workers once again had their rights violated and went on a strike; the company had to negotiate the claims in court, but again, continued to disrespect the laws, engineering norms, safety at work standards and the agreements with the Labor Public Prosecutors. In 2011, the Labor Public Prosecutors’ inspection once again found illegalities and irregular outsourcing. We continue to work to guarantee the rights of hundreds of workers in mining companies and especially in SAMARCO, but the company always refuses to recognize the union and keeps workers in a state of total insecurity.

In 2015, the situation of total disrespect for the laws and safety rules reached the highest point: SAMARCO hired VIX Logística, a machine leasing agency, in order to super exploit the workers, and to operate the dam increase and the transportation of explosives, without any technical register or expertise in the area of engineering. Thus, on November 5th, 2015, the dam collapsed released more than 30 million tons of ore sludge killing 14 construction workers, one miner employee of SAMARCO and four residents of Mariana. The accident destroyed hundreds of homes and impacted the environment for over 1000 km.

We are in court fighting and along with the Mariana miners 'union struggling to guarantee workers' rights of the thousands of workers outsourced by mining companies to hundreds of dams across the state.

BWI: What is the role of construction workers in the work of the dams?

José Antônio da Cruz: All tailings transport work, operation of the dam, Water drainage, operation of lifting machines, Backhoe loaders, trucks , construction of water and energy infrastructure for mines, the cleaning of the land , Dredging and reuse of water used in the mining process. All this is from the area of engineering and construction.

BWI: What is the safety condition of dams in Brazil nowadays? Is it possible that this accident repeats in another place?

José Antônio da Cruz: Nowadays, there are two safety standards at work, one for mining and the other for infrastructure construction, neither of which has an effect on tailings dams. In addition, there is no engineering standard that regulates the construction and maintenance and operation of tailings dams. Now, the Temer’s government (current Brazilian president) has supported a law that guarantees total outsourcing without rules in all industrial areas, creating a greater risk situation.

In the last five years, several accidents occurred in dams, and around the city Mariana there have already been three accidents with dozens of victims. According to official reports, more than 45 tailings dams are at risk of disruption and none of the 400 existing ones, are being inspected or have any regulations to follow. The unions and the Brazilian Public Labor Prosecutors are the only ones trying to ensure the safety of workers and the community.

BWI: What are the union's proposals to mitigate the effects of the accident and prevent further accidents from happening?

José Antônio da Cruz: We fight for specific engineering and safety regulations for dams; to ensure the recognition of the unions of heavy construction and mining, together in the same struggle in the productive process of mining; to ensure compliance with collective bargaining agreements for subcontracted workers and the end of irregular and illegal outsourcing. We also fight for the indemnification of the victims and workers over exploited by the mining companies, for the union's access to the places of work and the organization in the work place. Finally, we fight, for the recognition of the dams as part of the productive process, with rules and regulations.

We expect the international support to push the federal and state governments, and especially, the international mining companies to respect workers’ rights , this is a worldwide fight in all areas of mining.

Finally, we pay a tribute to our comrades dead in the dams, especially those killed in the biggest work accident in dams in Brazilian history: the collapse of the Mariana’s dam.