Responding to COVID-19 in the Mining Industry
By Patricia A. O. Bunye
On 08 March 2020, the Philippine Government declared a State of Public Health Emergency throughout the entire archipelago in light of confirmation of the local transmission of COVID-19. All government agencies and local government units were tasked to assist, cooperate and mobilize resources to undertake critical, urgent and appropriate responses to address the exigencies of the situation. Since then, government agencies have been releasing the appropriate issuances to implement measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 and adapt to the crisis.
The Mines and Geosciences Bureau (“MGB”), the government agency responsible for the conservation, management, development and use of the country’s mineral resources, likewise issued several memoranda instituting various measures to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, including realignment of funds, extension of deadlines, adoption of alternative work arrangements and implementation of safety protocols for operations in the mining sector.
Realignment of Social Development and Management Program Budget
In a Memorandum dated 27 March 2020, the MGB authorized mining companies to re-align unutilized funds from their Social Development and Management Program (“SDMP”) to assist host and neighboring communities around mining projects, as well as the non-impact barangays in their respective localities, until the threat of COVID-19 has abated. The principal objective of the re-alignment is to make use of the unutilized SDMP funds for the social amelioration of communities around the mining projects through the provision of health or hygiene kits and food packs in order to efficiently and timely respond to the needs of the communities to combat COVID-19. As of 27 May 2020, approximately Php297 million of the SDMP budget has been utilized to aid the concerned frontliners and households.
Extension of Deadlines
Aside from food and medical provisions, the MGB also provided legal relief by relaxing the rules on submission of documents and payment of fees, taking into consideration the logistical, social and economic difficulties encountered as a result of quarantine measures. In this regard, the MGB issued a notice allowing the extension of deadlines of the submission of reportorial requirements and proof of payment of occupation and other regulatory fees as prescribed under the Mining Permit/Contract up to 30 June 2020, or up to the immediate submission date when the pertinent quarantine is lifted.
Protocols for the Resumption of Mining and Mineral Processing Operations under General Community Quarantine (“GCQ”)
Following the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (“IATF-MEID”), the Philippine Government announced on 28 May 2020 that Metro Manila, along with other regions classified as low-risk and high-to-moderate risk areas for coronavirus transmission, would transition from a strict lockdown under the Enhanced Community Quarantine (“ECQ”) to a less stringent GCQ beginning 01 June 2020. While movement and transportation is limited under both quarantine protocols to avoid the further spread of COVID-19, the transition from the stringent measures of ECQ to the relaxed measures of GCQ is expected to benefit the economy and the workforce as it allows for the reopening of several industries previously ordered closed under ECQ for not being essential industries.
With the easing of quarantine measures in most parts of the Philippines to support the economy, the mining sector and other select industries are now allowed to operate at limited or full capacity. However, since the threat of COVID-19 transmission is still present as cases continue to rise every day, operations of industries are allowed but remain subject to the condition that they follow strict safety protocols. In line with this, the MGB has released guidelines for the resumption of mining and mineral processing operations under GCQ under Memorandum Order No. 2020-004.
Workforce and Working Arrangements
Under the guidelines, a workforce anywhere between 50% up to full operational capacity at the mine/plant site shall be allowed, without prejudice to work from home and other alternative work arrangements. In order to determine who will be required to report for work, mining contractors or permit holders are mandated to conduct personnel profiling in accordance with the IATF-MEID guidelines. Employees not allowed to report for work or those who are prescribed to be on self-quarantine shall be subject to special work arrangements, such as work from home.
Responsibilities of Mining Employers
Aside from personnel profiling, mining contractors or permit holders are also required to provide for the necessary medical equipment and supplies, such as thermal scanners, masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers, as well as transportation to and from mine and plant sites and accommodation for employees residing five (5) kilometers away from the mine or plant site in order to reduce exposure to the virus and protect the workers from infection.
To further ensure the safety and health of the mining workforce, mining contractors or permit holders are also enjoined to observe strict sanitation and physical distancing measures.
Guidelines for shipment of minerals and mineral products
In cases of shipment of minerals or mineral products, supplies and materials, the guidelines require that cargo vessels shall undergo a 14-day quarantine beginning from the time of its departure at the last port of call.
No vessel crew may be allowed to disembark from the vessel and only personnel authorized by the Philippine Ports Authority and cleared by the Quarantine Medical Officer may board the vessel subject to observation of a “no contact” policy within the vessel.
Additionally, miners are enjoined to follow measures to contain the spread of the disease, such as (a) submitting a Shipment Report containing the information on the crew list, the port of origin and the COVID-19 test results of the crew; and (b) passing through holding/disinfection areas for persons who shall board and disembark from the vessel.
The guidelines, as well as the other measures implemented by the MGB, address the immediate impacts of COVID 19. In the longer term, mining companies need to consider the opportunities and risks arising from this crisis. While for some commodities, the short-term market demand may be low, other commodities like gold typically benefit in times of high uncertainty. Another so-called silver lining for the industry is the lower cost of energy, which usually constitutes 20-25% of operating costs.
During this period, companies are also like to respond by rationalizing or streamlining their operations and their workforces, including automating more functions and processes. They will also be called upon to provide services, particularly in health care, to the host and neighboring communities ‘above and beyond compliance’ as these communities are often already underserved by the government.
More than simply adapting to the crisis, mining companies are challenged to respond with resilience, particularly in navigating new or increased legal or financial risks. It is a brave new unprecedented world for us all, where only those who can embrace change will survive.
Patricia A. O. Bunye is a Senior Partner at Cruz Marcelo & Tenefrancia where she heads its Mining & Natural Resources Department and Energy practice group. She is also the Founding President of Diwata-Women in Resource Development, Inc., a non-government organization advocating the responsible development of the Philippines’ wealth in resources, principally, through industries such as mining, oil and gas, quarrying, and other mineral resources from the earth for processing.