Mine bosses must cough up

Members of the Treatment Action Campaign, Section27 and Sonke Gender Justice arch through the streets of
Johannesburg to hold corporations accountable for mine workers contracting silicosis (Photo: Shayne Robinson)

In “How to make gold mining silicosis-free” (City Press, March 20 2016), the CEOs of six South African mining companies pronounce their “aim” to achieve a “fair and sustainable solution as soon as possible” to address gold miners’ silicosis compensation and ill health.

This will entail “a legacy fund” to supplement the statutory compensation scheme under the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act, and resources to assist the state in “repairing” the administration of the act’s scheme.

They attribute the epidemic of dust-related lung diseases among black mine workers to practices that were the “legacy of an industry that has been in existence for over 100 years”.

The “legacy” of gold mining industry practices over the past century is an unprecedented epidemic of the lung diseases silicosis and silico-tuberculosis among black South African mine workers. The 1994 Leon Commission found that dust levels on the mines had not improved for 50 years. The industry was in effect given carte blanche to disregard mine workers’ health, and focus on maximising production and profit.

The pronouncements of the CEOs should be viewed with scepticism and indignation, as the industry has been dragging its heels over the silicosis issue for many years.

In its 2003 Report to Society, AngloGold said it acknowledged its role and responsibility in working with the state and the industry as a whole to ensure that appropriate measures were put in place to limit exposure now and in the future, and to secure compensation for those who may have been exposed in the past.

In a 2006 report titled The Legacy of Silicosis, AngloGold said: “Specific issues that are being addressed are the identification of the primary areas where former mine workers reside, the strengthening of occupational health services so that former mine workers are better able to access medical examinations, and improvement of the [act’s] certification and compensation claims processes.”

At its 2012 annual general meeting, Anglo American’s chief medical officer, Dr Brian Brink, referring to silicosis, said: “All of this adds up to an unmanageable burden on the health systems in rural communities, which are so often very weak; too weak to serve the community. And, as a result, ex-mine workers have huge problems in getting benefit examinations, compensation and access to care, and this is an unacceptable state of affairs. We agree that we have to get on now and get something done. There’s been too much talk and too little action.”

To date, the only positive news has occurred in the cases that we have pursued, namely for the 23 President Steyn mine workers whose claims were settled by Anglo American in 2013 and the March 2016 settlement, valued at about R500 million, of 4 365 mine workers’ claims by Anglo American and AngloGold. Despite regular pleas for assistance over the past two decades, the industry has allowed former mine workers to continue languishing, impoverished, without compensation or medical assistance.

The situation is especially serious for workers with silicosis who live in rural, former migrant-labour areas where medical services are lacking. Their risk of contracting tuberculosis is greatly increased. The combination of silicosis and tuberculosis can often be fatal. The act’s system has been in a state of chaos, such that the majority of former mine workers have no means of accessing it in practice.

Furthermore, the silicosis victims largely comprise older men. Among our group of 4 365 individuals, the average age was over 60. Silicosis victims will continue to die at an alarming rate. If they have not been examined during their lifetime, their next of kin will find it difficult to prove they contracted silicosis. Whether intentional or not, the consequence of the continuing delay is to decrease the overall compensation bill. The delay over the past two decades must already have achieved a substantial saving.

In proposing a “sustainable solution”, the CEOs arrogantly imply that silicosis victims’ compensation should reflect the economy of the industry. They refer to the important role of the industry in providing employment to thousands of workers. In 2003, just before we launched the original silicosis litigation, a senior government official requested that we refrain from representing silicosis victims in compensation claims.

The mining industry had apparently warned that litigation would destabilise the economy of the industry. Now, again, the CEOs are making the same veiled plea and, in doing so, are attempting to pit the rights of silicosis victims against the jobs of current workers. The morality of deploying such arguments is questionable. Why should the silicosis victims agree to reduce their compensation entitlements to help the industry? Their legal case is strong and unlikely to be defeated, even by the armies of corporate lawyers the companies continue to employ to defend the indefensible.

The Q(h)ubeka Trust that has been established to process the 4 365 claims provides a model that could be replicated on a larger scale for the benefit of the wider group of silicosis victims. The industry needs to get in gear now and set this up.