Bong Mines, Bong County – China Union, a billion dollar mining company operating in Bong Mines, Fuamah District in Bong County, appears to be facing bankruptcy in the wake of slump in the price of iron ore on the world market, a FrontPageAfrcia tour of the company’s facility has established.
The company’s investment is worth US$ 2.6 billion, but has found it extremely difficult to maintain its current workforce seemingly due to economic challenges posed by market factors.
The company, according to inside sources, has not exported iron ore since July 2014. A FrontPage Africa tour of the iron ore processing plant – the area the ore processing was done – showed the idle machines are becoming rusty.
The dramatic reduction of the company’s staff, both Liberians and expatriates, and the company’s decision to sell crushed rocks to vendors and use its train for commercial purposes are a few examples that highlight the struggle it is enduring in the wake of these global circumstances.
As part of a 25-year Mineral Development Agreement (MDA) with the Liberian government, the company was responsible to operate the Bong Mines Hospital, which is the only referral hospital in lower Bong County.
And it was the MDA that raised the hopes of residents of Bong Mines in an underdeveloped district, especially after President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during a state of the nation address in 2007 announced that the company would provide over 4,000 jobs for Liberians.
Besides the renovation of the Zaweata School, now Bong Mines Central High, the renovation of the Bong Mines Hospital which provided free medical care to residents of the district and nearby areas, the construction of the 45 km Kakata-Bong Mines road by the company offered residents hope that a new day in their lives had dawned.
The US$1.7 million annual social development fund to Bong County by China Union also gave them hope that life would be better by the end of the concession period.But a decade after, their hopes have been dashed with frustration as many, including Liberian workers; continue to feel the pinch from the crisis facing the company.
FrontPage Africa’s investigation revealed a drastic reduction in the number of staff. There are 10 Chinese expatriates currently in the employ of China Union while the 300 Liberian workers have been reduced to 35. The Liberian workers complained that they have not received the consignment of rice they had been receiving at the end of every quarter.
Despite the crisis facing the company, preferential treatment continues for its Chinese workers, FrontPage Africa has gathered.
Chinese expatriates at China Union are fed three times a day while Liberians who take on the difficult jobs are fed once, inside sources told FrontPage Africa.
Besides, expatriates are said to be given a monthly transportation allowance of US$650 while Liberians are given US$15 dollars, our sources furthered.
More redundancy of staff likely?
Tension is brewing among the small number of Liberians left at the company after last month’s downsizing over 100 staff.
Already, those who were dismissed by the company are crying foul that the company failed to live up to the collective bargaining agreement they signed with they signed, a claim the company’s Public Relation Officer, Moses Tate has refuted.
Prince Forkpa, who worked with the company for more than five years, said it was discouraging that they were sacked without their just benefits.
“The company promised to pay every one of us during the negotiation we entered into but to my surprise, they have not done anything yet.”
Another staff, Obediah Kollie, who worked with the company for six years explained similar ordeal, saying: “I can’t understand what is going on my brother.
Up to now the company hasn’t paid the money owed us. We are contemplating taking the company to court.”
The company’s Public Relation Officer, Moses Tate, refuted the dismissed workers’ claims, terming it as diabolical. He said at no point in time did China Union go into negotiations with employees of the company.
“We are aware of the unfavorable global climate situation affecting our operations then how will we promise over 100 employees of remittances. It’s a lie!” he said.
FrontPage Africa reliably also gathered that the company is finally contemplating on parting ways with the less than 10 Liberian staff in its employ.
Tate said the impending move by the company would bring an end to the company’s operations in the country.
Another strategy being employed by the company is to get involved in the sale of crushed rocks extracted during the mining of iron ore during active operation.
Every truckload is sold for US$60, and if the vendor wants to use the Chinese truck, that is negotiable.
The sale of the truckload of crushed rocks by the Chinese also affects Liberian businesses involved in the sale of crushed rocks in Bong Mines, as buyers come from faraway places like Kakata daily to transact.
On a sunny Wednesday, a buyer only identified as Beatrice said she took interest in buying from the Chinese because theirs is less expensive than that sold by Liberians.
“We buy the truckload of rocks from the Chinese very cheap more than our own people. Can you imagine, the Chinese will help you to load it while our own people will charge you for loading, money different from what you will pay them,” she added.
Train use for commercial purpose
Perhaps the major source of income for China Union is to commercialize the train.
The train was used to transport Liberian workers of the company to their various areas but after the company became inactive, the train began serving different purposes.
It takes people as far as Duala and the St. Paul Bridge in Monrovia. It takes up to 400 passengers and charges each passenger 100 Liberian dollars.
Local residents from nearby towns and villages troop to a particular location as early as 7:AM to board the train every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
A mother of two, Nae Younger Peabody, told FrontPageAfrcia that she has been using the train for commercial purposes for the past three months and it has helped make life easier.
“I don’t have to go as far as Kakata before boarding a vehicle to go Monrovia again. The train has made it easier for us, especially we the business people,” she said.
The Bong Mines hospital is one institution facing the brunt of the company's near collapse.
At first, the company provided drugs to the hospital and helped pay workers at the clinic. For now, the company's involvement with the clinic has been minimal, amid drugs shortage.
The problems confronting the company appear to be very serious, as it has failed to renovate houses it promised for the workers.
The workers last year demanded shelter from China Union, something they said was part of the company's social responsibility.
Even though construction on a few houses started and is yet to be completed, the China Union appears not to have kept its promise to residents as it has gone 10 years without meeting their demands.
Have locals benefited after 10 years?
What was seen as a beacon of hope for locals of the district has been replaced by anger and frustration. The locals in a FrontPageAfrica interview said the presence of the company has done nothing for the district.
"What have they done for us? They said they are giving us US$2 million in development fund but there are not enough schools and hospitals for us the beneficiaries.
This is disappointing," Prince Smith, a student of Bong Mines School, told FrontPageAfrica.
When contacted via mobile phone, Rep. Corpu Barclay of Bong’s District #7 which plays host to the company, could not heap nor slam the company for its 10 years presence in the district.
“There have been some good things the company has done though not comparatively much as many would but I think the level of employment given to citizens by the company was rewarding.”
As China Union prepares to shut its door on Liberia and Part Company with its last batch of Liberians in its employ, the views among residents about the company’s decade of operations are contrary to the lawmaker’s opinion about China Union.