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“Pay Us Before We Die”: Ailing Ex-South African Miners Plead

May 28th, 2021
topic: Human Rights
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: South Africa
tags: class action, mining, South Africa, Tuberculosis, worker's rights

When thousands of ailing and aged members of Miners Association of Mozambique (AMIMO) were asked to open bank accounts in 2016, they had begun rubbing their palms in gleeful anticipation of huge financial windfalls in compensation for the silicosis and tuberculosis (TB) that they contracted during the many years they toiled under hazardous conditions in South African gold mines. However, some five years later, that anticipation is turning into dejection and hopelessness for these sick ex-miners, as not even one of them has received their promised compensation yet.

Hundreds of Thousands Contracted Silicosis, TB

This anguish is shared by hundreds of thousands of miners (and families of dead miners) in South Africa, as well as other migrant workers from southern African countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Botswana and Eswatini , who suffered work-related health loses on 82 South Africa gold mines in the decades since March 1965.

As a result of these hazardous working conditions, most of them contracted fatal respiratory diseases such as silicosis and TB. Silicosis is caused by inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rocks while working in the underground mines.

A landmark decision in 2016 by a South African judge allowed human rights lawyers to launch a class action on behalf of the miners who contracted these respiratory ailments. It took another two years for the lawyers and the mining firms to settle on a global figure of ZAR 5 billion (about $400 million) as compensation for the ailments and other losses and abuses that the workers suffered as the mining firms hotly pursued profits. 

Six major South African gold mining firms cited in the lawsuit agreed to pool together a R5 billion compensation fund under the Occupational Lung Disease (OLD) Working Group. These firms are African Rainbow Minerals‚ Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye Stillwater. 

As per the terms of this settlement, these funds were used to establish Tshiamiso Trust, which would run over a 12-year period and would be responsible for paying the compensation benefits to eligible former gold miners or their dependents in South Africa and throughout southern Africa. Ex-miners were worried, however, that it took almost two years - until February 2020 - just for this trust to be registered with the High Court in South Africa.

Compensation Process is Painfully Slow

As of this May, some three years after the approval of the compensation, only seven claimants - out of a possible 500,000 cases - had received something out of this kitty, and this slow process has raised both the anxieties of the dying miners and the fury of rights defenders. 

This inordinate delay was the subject of a meeting of southern African civic society organisations that are concerned that with each passing day, the ex-miners have higher chances of dying than of receiving their compensation.

“Since the creation of the Tshiamiso Trust there has been little progress with administering compensation to the sick ex-miners and in cases where they are deceased, their families,” reads a statement from Justice For Miners (JFM), a forum of several civic organisations that have been fighting for these ex-miners.

“The JFM Forum also addressed the shameful dysfunctionality of the South African compensation system for miners where backlogs of over 100,000 unpaid claims and an equal number of unprocessed claims are directly responsible for the suffering endured by the very communities who dug the gold that laid the foundations for South Africa’s wealth,” the statement further reads. 

Trust Acknowledges Claimants’ Frustration 

In a statement announcing the first payments, Tshiamiso Trust chairperson, May Hermanus, blamed the delays on the “challenging exercise” of setting up “the huge infrastructure, based strictly on the court approved trust deed agreed by the parties, that is needed to implement the 12-year, R5 billion settlement that will ultimately pay out benefits to an expected tens of thousands of people.”

She also acknowledged the frustration that claimants have experienced: “The wait since May 2018, and since the establishment of the Trust in February 2020, has been a source of frustration for our prospective claimants, many of whom are old, and ill. Where they have passed away, the wait has been the ordeal of their dependents. The trustees and the management of Tshiamiso are painfully aware of this.” 

The compensation process was also affected by repeated COVID-19 lockdowns.

More Than 5 Million Silicosis Deaths

Throughout the acrimonious negotiations, lawyers for the miners pointed out that the dangers from silica-laden dust were raised more than a century ago, just about the time the South African mining boom got into full throttle. They highlighted that preventive measures, which include blowing huge quantities of chilled air through the mineshafts and use of masks, were also known but were ignored until recently after hundreds of thousands of workers have been exposed to these hazardous working conditions. 

Silicosis causes a persistent cough, shortness of breath and chest pains, and makes those suffering from it susceptible to tuberculosis, among others ailments. This underlying respiratory condition makes patients especially susceptible to COVID-19 infections. It is estimated that more than five million people have died in southern Africa over the past 130 years from tuberculosis and silicosis contracted while working in the South African gold mines. 

A Global Trend

The South African gold miners’ case is just one of the many cases where global players in the extractive industries are being held accountable for their present and past actions through costly lawsuits.

American oil giant Chevron Corporation has been embroiled in a three-decade legal war with an indigenous community in Ecuador over the environmental and social harm that its operation caused in the Amazon region. 

ExxonMobil is also being sued in a number of US states for allegedly misleading consumers about the effects of its activities on climate change.

Shell faces an environmental pollution lawsuit over its subsidiary’s operations in Nigeria.

In Zambia, Anglo American Corporation faces a lead poisoning class suit over its mining operations in the Kabwe area that run from 1925 to 1974.

In Mozambique, gemstones miner, Gemfields, in 2019 paid $7.8 million in an out-of-court settlement over allegations of human rights violations.

Most of these corporations vigorously defend these lawsuits and even when found guilty, would still try to avoid paying the settlements.

Image: CIFOR

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
South Africa
Hundreds of thousands of miners had suffered work-related health loses on 82 South Africa gold mines in the decades since March 1965.
© Bloomberg
Winkelhaak gold mine in Secunda, south-east Transvaal in South Africa. As a result of the hazardous working conditions, most of the miners contracted fatal respiratory diseases such as silicosis and TB.
© Romano Cagnoni/RETIRED
Thousands of striking miners march to the offices of Anglogold Ashanti in Carletonville on October 18, 2012.
© Alexander Joe
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