Bikita Minerals says it is halting operations for a week to address “administrative concerns”, potentially delaying a US$200 million investment in new capacity at the country’s oldest lithium mine.
Mine Manager David Mwanza did not detail what these concerns are, but the action comes after reports of a staff dispute over work conditions and a police bust of stolen lithium ore.
“This notice serves to inform our stakeholders and partners that we have put our operations on hold for 7 days to address administrative concerns raised by authorities at our plant,” Mwanza said in a notice on Monday.
“As a law-abiding corporate, we remain committed to fully comply(ing) with all requirements of the law and expect to resume operations once all the outstanding issues have been addressed. In the meantime, the company’s leadership is working closely with all relevant authorities to ensure that the matter is resolved within the stipulated time frame.”
The company says only workers in care and maintenance and other essential services would stay at work.
Deputy Mines Minister Polite Kambamura said an order was issued on the company as part of audit into mining companies announced by Government last week.
“The audit was done by an inter-ministerial team looking at issues like immigration, labour laws, export laws, environmental laws and so forth. Once the mine puts the house in order, its authorities will call us to re-inspect. If it’s complying we will issue a reopening order,” Kambamura said.
Global metals giant Sinomine bought Bikita last year in a US$180 million deal with African Metals Management Services and German investor Wilfried Pabst’s Southern African Metals and Minerals, the Mauritius-registered companies that held a combined 74% the mine. After the acquisition, Sinomine immediately started building processing plants under a US$200 million investment that will treble production. The spodumene and petalite plants are expected to be completed by July.
The company currently employs 860 workers, and expects to employ over 1000 permanent workers after the completion of the new plants. It employed 360 workers before the acquisition.
Last week, Masvingo police reported they had arrested 17 people for allegedly stealing 3700 tonnes of lithium ore. The export of ore was declared illegal in December.
The company is currently fighting workers demanding better pay and working conditions. Union leader Stanley Dhliwayo says the company turned down proposals for higher salaries, citing the borrowings it incurred to raise money for expansion.
“We don’t agree with that, since production has been ramped up,” Dhliwayo says.
Zimbabwe is looking to lithium to drive growth in the mining sector. Over the past year, a string of Chinese and UK companies have arrived in Zimbabwe to set up operations. However, the lithium rush has raised concerns over poor regulation of some mining activity.
Last Thursday, Government launched a “Responsible Mining Audit” of all mining operations to push for compliance on labour issues, environmental protection, taxation and to stem the leakage of minerals.
“The Audit, will establish a framework that promotes responsible mining practices, while guaranteeing the well-being of communities and environments where mining activities are taking place,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa said at the launch of the audit.
Nationwide public debates around the proposed Mining Bill have shown growing frustration among community groups with miners who are disregarding environmental regulations while investing little in host communities.
The audit is likely to compel mines to step up investment in community infrastructure to satisfy government Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) demands. Bikita has committed to extending power lines to local communities, as part of an electricity supply deal with ZESA. Other major lithium miners, such as Sabi in Buhera, Premier African Minerals in Fort Rixon and Prospect in Goromonzi, have built roads to support both their operations and improve access for local areas.