Silicosis and its Gendered Impact

Social and Structural Drivers

Sonke Gender Justice and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), represented by SECTION27, have applied to intervene in a landmark lawsuit as amici curiae – “friends of the court”. 56 applicants, representing tens of thousands of mineworkers, are seeking to hold 32 gold mining companies in South Africa (collectively comprising the entire gold mining industry in the country) accountable for failing to prevent and respond to silicosis in gold mines.

Silicosis is a degenerative lung disease arising from exposure to and inhalation of silica dust during mining. It is irreversible, incurable and grows progressively worse, yet it is entirely preventable. As a latent disease, it often only appears decades after exposure to the dust, with symptoms including shortness of breath, coughing and chest pains. Those with silicosis are also more likely to develop tuberculosis (TB).

Only 1.5% of mineworkers certified as eligible for compensation for occupational illness through the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act of 1973 (ODIMWA) actually receive the full compensation. ODWIMA however, provides significantly less compensation compared to other occupational disease and injury compensation schemes in South Africa.

Sonke has applied to intervene and introduce evidence on the gendered impact of occupational lung disease in mine-sending communities. The responsibility for taking care of sick miners has been placed onto women living in poverty stricken rural mine-sending areas, where there is often no access to running water, and limited transportation to healthcare services. Hence, when mineworkers return home sick with silicosis and TB, it is usually women and children who take care of them – at considerable personal and financial expense.

Caring for someone experiencing these illnesses can be full time work, and is provided on an unpaid basis. As the law currently stands, it is difficult for caregivers to receive just compensation, equal to the amount the deceased miners they cared for could receive through the courts, which in itself is already an insufficient amount. Through the court proceeding, Sonke wishes to address this and allow dependents of deceased mineworkers to receive adequate compensation for their work.

The hearing to determine Sonke and TAC’s admittance as amici curiae has been postponed from April 2015 to July 2015. The certification of the class action lawsuit will be heard by the South Gauteng High Court in October 2015.

Activists at Sonke and TAC’s amici curiae (friends of the court) application on the 24th and 25th of August 2015