ISLAMABAD: Barrick Gold Corporation (BGC), which agreed to revive Reko Diq project after a resettlement with Pakistan earlier this year, assured the Supreme Court on Monday that it would not claim any exemption on labour laws and working conditions provided by it would be far better than what other companies provide to their workers in the country.

The assurance was held out by senior counsel Makhdoom Ali Khan, who represented the Canadian firm before a five-judge SC bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial during the hearing of a presidential reference on the Reko Diq project.

The chief justice expressed the apprehension that people could be forced to work for the company at low wages since BGC had no competitor in the area. The bench suggested that the terms of employment should be better than those offered by other companies, wondering if those working in the excavation of gold and copper would be paid in accordance with international standards.

The counsel assured the court that the International Labour Organisation conventions would be complied with to provide human safety requirements, safeguards and proper wage to labourers. A local grievance redressal mechanism for labourers would also be in place, he said, adding that the entire operation at the project would be monitored by the federal and Balochistan governments.

CJP-led bench likely to close Reko Diq case by Dec 1

Justice Yahya Afridi, however, asked the counsel to furnish comparison of wages being paid by the company in its operations in other parts of the world. The counsel emphasised that on the request of Chilean company Angofagasta — a 50 per cent shareholder in the earlier but defunct arrangement for copper and gold exploration — a deadline of Dec 15, 2022, was set to close the proposed Reko Diq project resettlement agreement. When the bench asked if the deadline was extendable for a couple of weeks so that the court could come up with a proper answer to the reference, the counsel said Angofagasta had shown flexibility in the deadline only after repeated requests.

One of the provisions in the settlement agreement is the establishment of escrow funds worth $900 million to buy the 50 per cent share holding of Angofagasta by Pakistan. After the expiry of Dec 15 deadline, any delay may cost Pakistan an interest of $7 million a month, legal observers believe.

The chief justice expressed the hope that the court may close the hearing of the presidential reference by Nov 30 or Dec 1 and provide answer to the reference sometime next week. At this, Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan pointed out the court may announce a short order, the detailed reasons of which may follow.

In response to a court query, the counsel said the distance from Gwadar port to the project site was 680 km, but the ore excavated from the mining site and converted into slurry by adding water would be treated before being released into the sea through Gwadar. However, when the bench referred to the experience of Katas Raj in the cement industry case, the counsel said the underground water in Katas Raj was fit for human consumption, but this was not the case here.

Referring to concerns regarding water availability due to the water-intensive mining project, the counsel for the firm assured the apex court that enough ground level water was available for the entire mining life of the project. But since it was brackish and unfit for human consumption, the project company would set up desalination and treatment plants to treat water, he said, claiming that it would also be available to locals for their consumption. Besides, huge ponds would be created for the preservation of water, he added. He assured the court that the company would use water in an environment-friendly manner by doing rain harvesting and re-treating used water for re-consumption.

The state-owned enterprises comprising OGDC, PPL and Government Holding Companies earlier apprised the court that the advice received from ‘leading industry experts’ was that the proposed settlement deal was in the interest of public sector and it was expected that the public sector would end up retaining 64pc of the benefit from this project.

Jehangir Awan, the counsel for state-owned enterprises, said what concerned them the most was that any adverse finding by the SC would liquidate the entire investment as in that scenario the project would be left incomplete.

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2022

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