November 19, 2015 / 11:01 PM / 4 years ago

Vale workers fear for safety after Brazil's Samarco disaster

MARIANA, Brazil (Reuters) - Workers at Brazilian iron ore miner Vale SA fear for their safety after the Samarco dam burst in the town of Mariana, where the company was reducing the number of employees because of weak ore prices, despite its push for output and complaints about safety.

A general view of Bento Rodigues district which was covered with mud after a dam owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd burst, in Mariana, Brazil, in this file picture taken November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes/Files

A tailings dam at Samarco, a joint iron ore venture of mining majors BHP Billiton and Vale SA, unleashed 40 million cubic meters of mud on the valley below on Nov. 5, killing 11 people with 12 still missing.

For Ronilton Condessa, secretary of the Metabase labor union in Mariana, where Samarco is the main employer, in Minas Gerais state’s iron belt, the dam’s collapse is evidence of the risks the company is taking with its people.

“Now I feel that 100 percent of the workers at Vale are not safe on the job, and the main reason is that they knew the risk but thought it wouldn’t happen,” Condessa said.

He told Reuters that nearly 400 mine workers were dismissed in 2015 from Vale’s mining complex of Mariana, even as it squeezed more productivity from the workforce to offset the drop in revenue from iron ore sales to the global steel industry.

Condessa said workers at Vale are emotionally shaken in Mariana. The company unearths 10 percent of its total iron output of roughly 340 million tonnes a year there.

Vale has four mines in the Mariana Complex around Samarco: the Algeria, Fabrica Nova, Vazendao and Timbopeba mines, where it employs 3,000 people. Metabase represents workers at the first three of those mines.

Vale told Reuters in a note that it is keeping its workers informed about its response to the disaster and that it has been trying to ease their concerns.

The company also said it was reviewing the safety conditions at 115 of its main dams and no concerns have arisen so far.

Meanwhile, Vale has been pushing productivity and output to record levels in the face of sagging prices, as it is fighting for the No. 1 slot in iron ore against its Australian rivals BHP and Rio Tinto.

“Hiring is happening only in exceptional cases,” Condessa said. He said union members have complained about undue pressure to ramp up production.

Writing by Reese Ewing; editing by Grant McCool

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