SANNIQUELLIE, NIMBA COUNTY – In February 2014, just before the outbreak of Ebola, Alphonso Dolo began work as a receiving officer in the procurement division of ArcelorMittal, Liberia’s largest iron ore company. One year four months later, he was laid off as the company reacted to a fall in the price of iron ore and the impact of the epidemic on its operations.
Five years on, Dolo has not found another job. ArcelorMittal should have recalled him now that business has improved, but the company has not done so yet. He has run out of patience.
“My family and I depend on making cassava farm to survive. I can hardly afford to buy rice now by bag because I am not working to earn money,” Dolo laments. “When we go through and this coronavirus goes out of the country, [ArcelorMittal] must get ready with the government to come and kill us because this company will not operate until it settles us. We will block this railroad at any point to stop the iron ore from going.”
Dolo plans to protest by blockading the company’s railroad tracks so its cargo trains cannot pass. He is one of 450 former ArcelorMittal employees made redundant between 2015 and 2016 who are now threatening to take action against the company after the coronavirus pandemic.
Conditions have improved at ArcelorMittal, but it has not reinstated Dolo and others. The price of iron ore has been on the rise since ebbing to US$55 per ton in 2015. It has been trading above US$100 since the beginning of June, and it is at US$104.50 as of June 18.
The company has not reemployed the laid-off workers despite having hired many new employees, according to an investigation by the Ministry of Labor in January of this year. It said the subsidiary of the multinational steel giant, ArcelorMittal S.A., has hired more than 500 new workers since the 2015 and 2016 layoffs and has proposed to expand its operations to create a thousand more jobs.
“[ArcelorMittal] should be required to rehire all workers redundant, except those no longer willing to resume work or for whom different circumstances have made same impossible,” the Labor Ministry recommended. “Workers not legally encumbered from working, but whom ArcelorMittal is unwilling to hire, will be deemed wrongfully dismissed and subject to payment of compensation.” The investigation report called for laid-off workers to be paid for up to 24 months if the company does not reinstate them.
The findings have left the aggrieved ex-workers even more furious.
“We will block the railroad when we are ready, and the company will not be able to transport any ore until we are settled,” says Emmanuel Weah, who worked with the company as a mine operator from 2011 to 2015. “We are hustling here to keep our families up, but [ArcelorMittal] must know that it will pay for the disgrace it exposes us to if it does not settle our arrears.”
“ArcelorMittal should get ready for us, and we will use the unusual means that may cause it not to operate at all,” warns Arki Cisco, head of the redundant workers’ union. “We are more than 500 people from Nimba, Bong, Grand Bassa, and other places and, if the company takes us for granted, we will see when the coronavirus subsides.”
The chief executive officer of ArcelorMittal, Scott Lowe, is pleading for more time. He acknowledges the company’s obligation to the redundant workers but says it cannot do anything amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The company remains willing to resolve the matter in line with those discussions in due course,” Lowe tells the Daily Observer in an email interview. ArcelorMittal Liberia understands that the COVID-19 crisis facing Liberia, its people, and business has been given priority and there has been some delay in documenting the outcome.”
The planned protest could be sooner rather than later. Although coronavirus cases continue to rise — 33 deaths from 542 cases as at June 18 — things are however starting to return to normal. Curfew has been pushed back to 9:00 p.m. in all counties that recorded the virus, including the three counties in the ArcelorMittal concession area. Travel restrictions have been eased and the President of Liberia says the state of emergency, which expires on June 21, 2020, will not be renewed.
A month after the Ministry of Labor’s investigation, aggrieved redundant workers protested in Sanniquellie, blocking the railroad. The protest was quelled only after the intervention of the Nimba legislative caucus. This incident elicited memories of a 2014 citizens’ strike at the company’s Zolowii facility that turned into a riot, where several of the company’s properties were damaged as well as a bridge on the Yekepa-Sanniquellie corridor.
“We have talked this over and told ArcelorMittal to pay the men off if it can no longer rehire them, but they continue to drag with the whole thing,” says Representative Prince Tokpah of electoral district No. 2. “This is not good and, if anything happens, it will… affect the entire Liberia. The Executive must see reasons to get on [ArcelorMittal] to pay these people or rehire them in line with the Labor Law.”
Coronavirus is not having the kind of negative impact on ArcelorMittal like Ebola did five years ago. The company still operates Mount Gangra and transships iron ore daily to Buchanan. Its production for 2020 remains 15 million tons of direct shipping ore (DSO), as it was last year. That means the company has at least tripled production capacity from 2018 (4.6 million tons), 2017 and 2016 (2 million tons, respectively), and 4.1 million tons in 2015.
ArcelorMittal is the largest mining company in Liberia and the only operation shipping iron ore from the country now. It contributes US$3 million annually in social development funds to Nimba, Bong, and Grand Bassa—the counties affected by its mining operations. The company contributed more than US$11.7 million to the government revenue in fiscal year 2017/2018, according to the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI) in its latest report.
Authorities are jittery that the protest will worsen Liberia’s already struggling economy. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Liberian economy was expected to grow 1.6 percent in 2020, after declining by 0.4 percent last year, according to the World Bank. This projection was largely based on recovery in the mining sector.
“For the company to pay social development funds to counties affected by its operations and royalties to the Government of Liberia, it must transport the ore to the market to sell. So if the railroad is blocked, it obviously means that what comes to Liberia will not come,” says Minister of Mines and Energy, Gesler Murray.
Blockading the railroad could also stall two important iron ore transshipment deals between Liberia and companies in Guinea. In March, Liberia signed a memorandum of understanding with Singaporean company Al Khaldiya Mining Private Ltd. for the transshipment of iron ore from its Diecké project through the 250-kilometer Tokadeh-Buchanan railroad. A month later, the country signed another transshipment deal with UK-based Niron Metals from the company’s Zogota iron ore deposit.
Dolo is firm in his resolve to protest, despite the negative impacts it could have on the national economy. He says only compensation or reemployment can stop his participation in the planned protest. “We are not here for trouble,” he says, “but if ArcelorMittal will be the cause for us to cause trouble, we will do it without regret.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Excellence in Extractives Reporting Project. German Development Cooperation provided funding. The Funder had no say in the story’s content.