By: Fatima Hassan
With the increasing, violent and acrimonious industrial action playing out in the South African mining sector, now in several provinces, before and after the Marikana incident, coupled with renewed international attention and front-page domestic news coverage, it has astounded me that there has been a general silence about the horrific existence and scale of the health burden facing mineworkers, often solely the result of their former or current work.
Besides a handful of commentaries, every single narrative about Marikana and since seeks to portray the actions of mineworkers and their concerns as exclusively wage related. Admittedly, since Marikana, we have generally learnt a lot more about the lives and dangerous work of rock drill operators, yearly mine wage negotiations and wage levels in some mining communities, and we will probably learn even more during and after the Farlam Commission.
Yet scant attention has been, or is, given to the nonwage benefits that workers are entitled to or should be seeking, which have a direct impact on their ability to seek other employment, live healthy lives and retire well enough not to be a financial burden on their communities, governments and families. And, given the well-understood preoccupation with wages or cash remuneration, it has been convenient for mine management and the South African government to withstand interrogation from the public and the international media (not to mention international human rights bodies and multilaterals) about its almost deadly omission to act in a manner that will improve the lives and health of mineworkers, particularly after they leave employment.
There are two main areas in health where this interrogation must take place: in terms of causing work-related ill health through regulatory omission and in terms of offering inferior and ad hoc compensation for mine-work-related lung illnesses. On both these counts, the South African government and mining companies that have secured licences to undertake mining operations in South Africa have failed to show the necessary leadership, political will and respect for the rule of available law.
In my view, they have run roughshod over vulnerable groups of men from South Africa and poorer neighbouring countries for decades and, left unchecked, will continue to do so for many more decades. How? Well, in the first place, there is government’s inability to effectively reduce and regulate dust levels at mines which, in turn, has been exploited by an industry that does not wish to aim higher in its ‘dust exposure levels’ performance. The ineffective regulation or half-hearted attempt to constantly keep the industry in check and ensure that, at least, it is on a par with international best practice means more exposure to dust, which leads to causing more ill health, in the sense that exposure increases risk to lung illness over time.
Secondly, government has shown an inability to create a well-funded, actuarially sound, fair and efficient compensation regime for former and active mineworkers, and this inability is fuelled by the noncooperation of the mining industry and its refusal to bear full responsibility for its historical and present health liability, as evidenced by three separate silicosis class action delictual damages cases currently before our courts.
Simple abhorrent examples of the mineworker compensation regime, inherited from the apartheid State, include a requirement for a higher clinical threshold for mineworkers to qualify for compensation for lung disease, compared with other workers in South Africa (the threshhold is even higher than International Labour Organisation classifications); paying out lower amounts over time (in real value terms) to mineworkers with lung disease, compared with nonmineworkers; using a lump-sum payment system instead of pension payouts; taking a very long time (in some cases four to five years) to archaically process claims and an even longer time to pay out; paying out only a small percentage of claims (in some cohorts of workers, less than 5% were compensated); not paying inflation- adjusted compen- sation amounts (in those cases where payments do take place); and requiring the family of a deceased mine- worker to ‘send’ the heart and lung of the deceased mineworker to an office in Johannesburg for organ inspection. The list goes on.
Yet the new democratic government, despite its promises, has never once, since assuming political power, amended the Compensation Act, which governs mineworkers. The mining industry has never once not resisted attempts by government or mineworkers to seek adequate, fair and constitutional damages and compensation for health problems caused by mine work.
For over 100 years now, the mining industry has directly contributed to ill health, premature suffering and preventable deaths in South Africa, where silicosis is particularly pronounced in the gold mining industry and the tuberculosis (TB) incidence is increasing at alarming levels in every sector that digs deep for minerals.
According to public-health experts, silicosis and TB have reached pandemic levels, with thousands of active and fomer mineworkers in South Africa and neighbouring countries dying each year, silently and painfully. Public-health experts have even showed that South Africa has the highest TB and silicosis rates in any mining and working population in the world. Despite this, little is being done to admit to the problem in a sustainable industrywide manner. Little is demanded by government of the mining industry and all blame wrongly falls on the shoulders of mineworkers for daring to strike and ask for just a little bit more. Quite often, the mining industry does not even make its data on morbidity and mortality among mineworker populations (and former mineworkers) available for public inspection and scrutiny. This is why a new narrative, one that deals with the entire gambit of socioeconomic problems in mineworker communities, including wages, housing conditions, access to water and sanitation, safety and security, causes and compensation for work-acquired illnesses and access to health benefits, is needed.
- Hassan is a human rights lawyer and activist and Tom and Andi Bernstein Fellow in human rights at Yale University - email@example.com