PNG strikers shot by police

June 12, 1991

By Norm Dixon

Riot police on May 31 opened fire on striking gold miners picketing the remote Porgera gold mine in PNG's Enga province. Seven miners were wounded by shotgun pellets.

The potentially deadly incident was covered up by the government (which owns 10%) and the mine's other joint owners, Placer Pacific, Highlands Gold and Renison Goldfields (30% each).

The dispute erupted on May 29, when at least half of the mine's workforce of 1300, members of the recently formed Porgera Mine Workers Union, downed tools and presented a 15-point log of claims that included demands for increased pay and the sacking of the mine's management. Management refused to talk to the workers, claiming the strike was illegal.

The workers set up pickets of at least 300 miners at the main gate of the mine. These blocked entry to mine for two days. On the third day, it is claimed police opened fire after picketers began throwing stones. The strikers deny this and say the attack was unprovoked.

Porgera has been touted as a "model", where the mistakes that led to the Bougainville crisis would not be repeated. The government has used the "Porgera model" to try to convince foreign capital that it remains safe to invest in PNG.

The government and joint venturers attempted to cover up the strike and their harsh response to it so as to preserve the myth of the "Porgera model". The first response of the government was to use repression against the strikers. One hundred heavily armed riot police were dispatched to the mine after the strike began. The Department of Labour declared the strike illegal on June 3, and police stepped up their patrols.

The government is desperate to keep production going at Porgera. With the closure of the giant Bougainville copper mine, Porgera has become one of PNG's key export earners. The mine is the world's sixth largest gold mine and is the lowest cost, highest grade gold mine in the world. It is expected to produce 900,000 ounces of gold over its first six years at a production cost of US$105 an ounce (compared with averages of over $300 at most other mines). The mine has a projected life of 18 years and is expected to produce 11 million ounces.

The incident highlights what lies behind the continual calls by big business and the Australian government for "law and order" in PNG. At a recent shareholders' meeting of Highlands Gold Limited, a subsidiary of Australian mining giant MIM Holdings listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, chairperson Norman Fussel said: "The directors feel that the major issue facing the country is the declining state of law and order ... An upgraded, well equipped police force with rejuvenated morale, is the crux of the solution. The legislative framework is in existence. What is needed is the will and the wherewithal to enforce it."

Meanwhile, students are maintaining their boycott on classes, test against huge pay increases that members of parliament voted themselves.

A student call for a nationwide general strike on June 6 was supported by the PNG Council of Churches and the parliamentary opposition. The government has stationed police at all tertiary institutions. Three squads of riot police have been assigned to the University of PNG in Port Moresby.

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