DOLE has no mandate on mine safety – Baldoz

MANILA, Philippines –The government checklist used in determining labor law compliance of businesses have no compliance indicators specific to mining sites, the labor department said on Tuesday, July 21.

Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz made the statement 4 days after the Panian mine of Semirara Coal and Power Corporation in Antique collapsed, burying 9 workers. 

"Mine safety and health and sanitation [are] under the mandate of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau if it is metallic mine, and under the Department of Energy (DOE) if it is coal fuel, which is used for energy generation,” Baldoz said.

She explained that the current legal framework does not empower the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to enforce safety rules in mining sites.

"The law says it is DOE [that] has the mandate on mine safety and we just coordinate with them," the labor chief told Rappler in a text message. 

Asked about mining-specific labor law compliance indicators, DOLE spokesperson Nicon Fameronag also said: "DOE should know. Wala ang DOLE (DOLE doesn't have)." 

 Located in Caluya, Antique, the Panian mine is the largest open-pit coal mine in the Philippines. A subsidiary of DMCI Holdings, Inc, Semirara markets itself as the largest coal producer in the Philippines, with a yearly yield of 8 million metric tons of coal. 

The same mine had figured in a landslide that killed 5 workers in 2013.

Compliance certificate

Based on a DOLE assessment covering the first quarter of 2015, Semirara secured a compliance certificate under the DOLE labor law compliance system (LLCS). (READ: Metro Manila needs more labor laws compliance officers)

The LLCS is a developmental system of assessing businesses' compliance with general labor standards as well as occupational safety and health standards. 

While the LLCS includes standards applicable to all businesses, a number of compliance indicators are industry-specific.

These include indicators for contractors and subcontractors in the construction industry, for recruiters and manning agencies in the overseas employment industry, as well as for industrial and agricultural enterprises.

Advocates call for DOLE's strict monitoring

Long-time trade unionist Leody de Guzman of the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino said Baldoz is simply invoking the legal framework to free her department from accountability during mine accidents affecting workers.

"Kahit na batas 'yan, dapat hindi ginagamit para maghugas-kamay (Even if that is the law, it is must not be used to escape responsibility)," said De Guzman on the sidelines of a Tuesday joint press conference calling for a halt on coal-fired power plant projects nationwide.

De Guzman condemned what he called the profiteering of coal mining operators at the expense of workers' lives. 

Semirara founding chairman David Consuji is 405th in Forbes' list of richest people on the planet for 2015, one of only 12 Filipinos on the list.

Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD) advocacy officer Nadia de Leon questioned why the Semirara miners had to work amid "continuous heavy rains in the coal mine area from July 1 to 14 which could have loosened the soil."

"Why were the workers compelled to work in such dangerous conditions?" she asked, adding that a similar profit-first mentality was in force in DCMI's construction of the controversial 46-storey "photobombing" Torre de Manila. (READ: DMCI found wiit 8 labor law 'deficiencies' – DOLE)

In a statement, IOHSAD said the employers "should be held criminally liable for failing to ensure the safety of their workers."

"Mining is considered as one of the most hazardous occupations. The Department of Labor and Employment should never be complacent in monitoring mining companies’ strict compliance with health and safety standards," said IOHSAD's De Leon.

Labor Undersecretary Rebecca Chato, however, explained that there are limitations set by legal rules.

"Mine safety is enforced by MGB (Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources) pursuant to DAO 2000-98 or the Mine and Safety Standards," she told Rappler in a text message. She added that coordination efforts between DOLE and MGB are in place.

Reform being evaluated

In a follow-up message to Rappler, Baldoz said there are talks underway on whether or not to consider MGB certification within the labor department's compliance system for mine sites.

The current framework is merely reactive, with reports on mine accidents  submitted to DOLE after the fact.

"Coordination meeting includes evaluation towards recognizing MGB certificates as equivalent compliance. At the moment, they (MGB) just furnish our regional office with the accident reports," Baldoz explained further.

DOLE is set to provide emergency livelihood assistance to 500 Semirara workers affected by the DOE suspension of Semirara's Panian mine operations. 

Baldoz also said labor law compliance officer Milson delos Reyes has joined the MGB, DOE, the local government, and the police in the investigation of the Semirara accident. The DOLE is waiting for the mine operators' report on the accident.

Meanwhile, BMP and IOSHAD supported calls for an independent investigation on the tragedy.

IOSHAD reiterated its call for criminal penalties on grave occupational safety and health (OSH) standards violations, which is merely fined under the 4-decades-old Labor Code.

The Philippine Mining Act of 1995 provides penalties for violations in mine safety and health standards, from fines to cancellations of permits. 

The law imposes a maximum 5-year imprisonment on those who willfully damage mining structures, in addition to payment of damages. Willfully violating or neglecting environmental compliance terms is also punishable by imprisonment of  6 months to 6 years, or a P50,000 fine, or both.

Calls to criminalize grave violations in workplace safety standards intensified on the heels of a massive factory blaze which claimed at least 74 lives. (READ: Deaths in PH factory show need for decent jobs) –