Freeport does a balancing act as world’s biggest gold mine grapples with COVID-19

In this news, we discuss the Freeport does a balancing act as world’s biggest gold mine grapples with COVID-19.

SINGAPORE / HOUSTON (Reuters) – When miners at Indonesian giant Grasberg’s gold and copper mine began testing positive for coronavirus at the start of the pandemic, the mountain-top mining complex was quickly locked down with a skeletal staff left in place to maintain production. months of dragged travel sidewalks, angry workers blocked the mine for four days in August until the operator – a unit of US miner Freeport McMoRan Inc – relented and let them resume weekly rotations out of the site via a four-hour cable car and bus trek to the towns below.

Now workers are happier, but health experts fear the increased risk of another outbreak.

The tensions reveal the balance to keep production at full speed, while containing COVID-19 at mines like Grasberg, the world’s largest gold mine and the second-largest copper mine.

“We put the priority and the health of our workers and our community at the top of our list,” Freeport McMoRan chief executive Richard Adkerson told Reuters. “From the start, we recognized that (Grasberg) was a particularly vulnerable place due to the size of the workforce” of almost 30,000 people.

As Freeport halted some global operations due to the pandemic, production continued at the 14,000-foot (4,267-meter) high Grasberg mine, despite Indonesia facing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks. in Southeast Asia.

In May, Freeport said it would operate with a “skeletal team” due to an increase in coronavirus cases in the region, including in the living quarters of workers. Freeport said at the time it was limiting contractors and removing “high risk” workers, but did not say how many people would work at the mine.

But the lockdown has had a psychological impact on workers trapped above the clouds in site since April, some of whom said they could not attend funerals for family members.

“We were frustrated, we wanted to see our families. So we had to protest, ”said one worker, speaking from a dormitory shared with four others. He asked not to be appointed for fear of losing his job.

Workers who were prevented from working at the mine were also unhappy with the loss of wages.

RISK OF A SECOND WAVE?

Grasberg is located in the Mimika Regency of Papua Province, which has seen a steady increase in coronavirus cases. As of October 8, there had been 1,902 cases in a population of about 224,000, the second most infected area in the easternmost province of Indonesia.

Five people have died from COVID-19 at the mine with 724 confirmed cases as of September 29, according to Mining Industry Indonesia, the state-owned company with a majority stake in Freeport Indonesia.

Since the protests, workers have returned to a weekly crew change list, local company PT Freeport Indonesia said, with around 400 to 500 workers leaving and entering the mine each day after temperature checks and a rapid test. of COVID-19.

If a rapid test is positive, it will be followed by a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which experts consider much more accurate.

Before the pandemic, twice as many workers entered and left the mine every day, Freeport Indonesia said.

Adkerson said Freeport is treating its employees for free against the coronavirus at its own medical facilities.

Tri Yunis Miko Wahyono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, said crew changes should be less frequent to limit the risk of the virus spreading.

“The shortest crew change should be two weeks, unless a company is willing to pay for PCR tests for each worker every week,” he said.

But this strategy keeps the workers site longer, adding to potential friction with the business.

“EVERYBODY WANTS US TO KEEP WORKING”

To help resolve the protests, Freeport Indonesia paid compensation of up to 15 million rupees ($ 1,010) for working longer than usual, although it said it did not have the responsibility entrepreneurs, who represent nearly three quarters of the 29,201 workers.

A Freeport contractor said over the phone that he had not yet received any payment, but the matter was being discussed with management and there were no plans for further protests.

Freeport is one of Indonesia’s largest taxpayers, with direct contributions of more than $ 16 billion in taxes, royalties, dividends and other payments between 1992 and 2015, according to company data.

The mine is also crucial for Freeport McMoRan, the world’s largest publicly traded copper producer, which made a profit in the second quarter in part due to increased production at Grasberg. pit at underground mining.

“Everyone wants us to keep working. The government does it, the community does it, it’s important for all stakeholders. Even in the United States, mining is seen as essential, ”Adkerson said.

Additional reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe in Jakarta and Melanie Burton in Melbourne; Editing by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan

Original © Thomson Reuters

Originally posted 2020-10-12 02:36:11.

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