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News 29 Apr 16

Suicide Threat Jolts Bosnian Canton into Saving Firm

After workers at the Tuzla Kvarc company staged a dramatic suicide threat, the cantonal authorities reached a new agreement with the firm that will allow it to restart production.

Rodolfo Toe
BIRN
Sarajevo
 
 A medical team from Tuzla hospital helps a worker of Tuzla Kvarc after the end of the strike | Photo: Anadolu

The dramatic saga of a mining company in Tuzla, northern Bosnia, took a new twist on Thursday after several of its workers, following a two-week hunger strike, climbed up one of the company's 35-metre-high siloses and threatened suicide unless the local government offered help to get the firm back to work.

On Thursday night, the government of the Tuzla Canton reached a deal with the Tuzla Kvarc's administration, which can now restart work after a year of inactivity.

"It would have been better to spend a week in a war than a day like yesterday," Senad Mehanovic, Tuzla Kvarc union leader said on television on Friday, adding that the strike was now over "after 20 days of agony".

Zlatan Velagic, deputy director of Tuzla Kvarc, told BIRN that the situation of the company had been "very critical".

Workers at Tuzla Kvarc, which mines and processes quartz in the Tuzla area - had been on  hunger strike Since April 10 inside the company premises.

They were protesting against the local government, which last year refused to renew their concession, demanding that the company first repay its debt, which the government set at around 200,000 euro.

The company was then obliged to suspend all its activities.

The situation was further complicated after the company claimed that the local government refused to renew the concession because Tuzla Kvarc had accused a former assistant of the Ministry of Industry and Mines of Tuzla, Bahrija Imamovic, of corruption.

Imamovic was arrested last April, accused of seeking bribes in exchange for granting concessions to mining companies in the canton.

"The decision not to renew our concession was definitely retaliation by the authorities after we denounced that corruption case," Velagic told BIRN.

Mark Worth, from the Southeast Europe coalition on Whistleblower Protection, said that although there is no hard evidence to connect the decision of Tuzla Canton authorities with the arrest of Imamovic, the timing was suspicious.

"If you look at the timing ... there's clearly a connection between the two things", Worth told BIRN. "What's happening to Tuzla Kvarc is clearly a warning that the local authorities want to send to other companies as well, so that they can see what happens when you stand against corruption.

"There are many other companies which are indebted, but none of them had its concession suspended," Worth added.

The government of Tuzla Canton has dismissed these claims, maintaining that the company did not get its concession renewed because of its big debts.

After the agreement on Thursday, Tuzla Kvarc should be able to restart activity next week, thanks to an agreement with the local Tehnograd company, which will formally own the concession and repay the firm's debts to the local government.

"After this agreement, we expect production to restart already after May 1 ... but if somebody doesn't respect this agreement, workers are ready to start protesting again in even a more radical way," Senad Mehanovic warned.

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