On January 16, a Barrick transport truck struck a guard-rail on the heavily travelled C-489 Highway in northern Chile. The driver was uninjured, but the impact left an eight-meter gap in the guard-rail, putting passing vehicles at risk of veering off the two-lane highway, which snakes through the Andes Mountains near Barrick’s Pascua-Lama project.
Later that day, a grievance was filed to Pascua-Lama asking Barrick to repair the guard-rail. Carolina Vergara, the Grievance Officer on the Chilean side of the project, which straddles the Argentine-Chilean border, referred the grievance to the site’s logistics department. The logistics department investigated the incident, confirmed Barrick was responsible and funded the repair of the guard-rail. During the investigation, warning signs and traffic cones were placed by the hazardous section of the road alerting drivers to the potential danger. Vergara updated the complainant regularly during the process, which took a matter of weeks from the date the grievance was filed to the completion of the repairs, and later shared a photo of the repaired guard-rail.
“The complainant was pleased with the way we handled the situation and we were happy we could address the issue in a timely and satisfactory manner, which is what a good grievance mechanism is supposed to do,” Vergara says.
All Barrick sites now have a grievance mechanism as required by the company’s Community Relations Management Standard (CRMS). Progress towards this goal, in fact, was one of the performance indicators tied to Barrick’s senior executive compensation in 2012. This year, sites are refining their respective mechanisms to ensure they are accessible to everyone and being effectively implemented, says Naomi Johnson, Barrick’s Director, Community Relations.
“It is exceptionally important that we get this right,” Johnson says. “A strong grievance mechanism ensures community members have a place to come and say, ‘I have a problem with the company and the company needs to work with me to resolve it.’ Communities have to have that recourse. It’s about being a good neighbor.”
A grievance is a stakeholder complaint requesting compensation or corrective action for alleged damage caused by Barrick or one of its contractors. Grievances can cover anything from complaints about excessive dust or noise from a mine, to concerns about speeding by Barrick vehicles, to allegations of unfair treatment by a Barrick contractor. Grievances involving alleged human rights violations are escalated immediately to the company’s legal department.
Barrick’s CRMS provides a template for developing a grievance mechanism and includes minimum requirements that all sites must meet. For instance, each site had to develop a way to register and record grievances, acknowledge receipt, and set a reasonable time frame to investigate and resolve them. How these requirements were met varied, as each site worked with host communities to ensure the grievance mechanism respects the local culture and values and factors in available technology in the area.
Some communities, for example, lack telephone service so grievances are typically filed during community visits or at a local Barrick office. In other communities, grievances might be filed via email or a complaints hotline, while some segments of a community prefer to lodge grievances through an independent channel, such as a local non-governmental organization.
For Scarlet Hazoury, Social Monitoring Coordinator at Barrick’s Pueblo Viejo mine in the Dominican Republic, convincing local residents to sign a written record of a grievance has been challenging. A public education campaign that provided a step-by-step overview of the process helped increase awareness and understanding, Hazoury says. “In our culture, Dominicans are really hesitant about signing things,” she says. “They think, if they sign something, they’re committed. So they feel scared and it’s something they have had to learn to do. You explain to them that it is important for our records, and that it’s strictly confidential.”
Luc Zandvliet, a community relations expert who consults extensively with the extractive industry, helped Barrick develop its grievance mechanism. A former Director in Sudan for the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, Zandvliet says it is critical that companies respond to grievances in a reasonable time frame, usually 30 to 40 days. “The process must be predictable,” he says. “You need to make good on that commitment to get the complainant a response, whether positive or negative, within a certain time frame, and update them regularly.”
Barrick’s CRMS requires each department at a mine or project to nominate an individual to investigate grievances that are beyond the scope of the grievance officer’s expertise. This is a critical component of the grievance mechanism and requires the support and cooperation of all departments and site management, Zandvliet says. “It is one thing to draft a procedure on a piece of paper, it’s a whole different ball game making it stick. Getting internal buy-in about why you do this and how it contributes to the business, that’s where the devil is really in the details.”
Most managers realize that there is a compelling business case for a strong grievance mechanism, Zandvliet adds. In particular, a grievance mechanism can serve as an effective early warning system that can help companies resolve manageable issues before they snowball into costly problems or spark social unrest. “If you don’t provide a mechanism for people to express their discontent in a non-obstructive way, you leave them no choice but to behave in more obstructive ways,” Zandvliet says.
At Pueblo Viejo last year, as construction of the mine entered its final phases, more than 9,000 people were working on site, many of them residents of nearby communities who were employed by third-party contractors. Each week, as a contractor completed its work, there were lay-offs. Initially, this process was managed solely by the contractors, but Hazoury said there was a spike in grievances, with many laid-off workers complaining about being underpaid or not receiving letters of reference. To alleviate the problem, the grievance office worked with management to set up portable offices on site and arranged for staff from Barrick’s human resources department to be present when lay-offs occurred so they could address concerns on the spot. “We needed people from labor relations there and, once we made the changes, the number of grievances came down,” Hazoury says.
With grievance mechanisms in place at all of its sites, Barrick is among the leaders in the extractive industry in an important and burgeoning area of corporate social responsibility, Zandvliet says. “Barrick is at or near the top,” he says, but adds that the company is not perfect. “There are some sites that have installed grievance mechanisms that are really world class. There are others that are slower on the learning curve.”
Hazoury says Pueblo Viejo’s grievance mechanism got off to a rocky start when it was rolled out in 2010, but new management has since come in and is fully committed to the process. Salame Makambe, Grievance Officer at African Barrick Gold’s Buzwagi mine in Tanzania, says she sometimes has to push other departments to respond to grievances, but that support has generally been high. “Sometimes you have to push, and sometimes they push back because the grievance mechanism also acts like a watchdog to other departments,” she says. “But after you explain why this is important, they understand and we move on.”
Not all grievances can be easily resolved. Sometimes facts are disputed, or the complainant isn’t satisfied with the proposed resolution. In such instances, and when subsequent attempts at a resolution fail, the grievance should be referred to an independent external grievance committee for adjudication, according to the CRMS. Barrick will, within reason, attempt to comply with the resolution proposed by the external grievance committee. If this process, which the CRMS refers to as a second-order mechanism, fails to break the stalemate, the last option is for the complainant to bring the issue before the courts. At this point, sites are in the process of establishing their second-order mechanisms.
While some aspects of the grievance mechanism are still being finalized, the fact that Barrick has established grievance mechanisms at all sites based on best practices can only enhance community engagement, Zandvliet says. “It sends a message that the company wants to be held accountable for its behavior, and that makes a huge difference in how the company is perceived,” he says. “People want to know that the company takes their concerns seriously. They want to be heard.”