Lawyer argues mines’ profits don’t show full picture as costs are passed on to workers, communities and the environment

9th August 2013

By: Samantha Herbst

Creamer Media Deputy Editor


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While securing employment and encouraging foreign direct investment in the mining industry are necessary to balance the protection of workers and maintaining an economy, more is needed to enhance the quality of life for mineworkers, says human rights lawyer Richard Spoor.

Addressing delegates at the twenty-sixth Annual Labour Law Conference, which ran from July 30 to August 1 at the Sandton Convention Centre, in Johannesburg, he noted that, if financial value were placed on human life and employers were held accountable for the lives of their workers, then mining companies would be incentivised to restructure and reorganise their mining techniques and operations, which would provide a solid foundation for growth.

Spoor, whose work in the occupational health and safety sector has held major mining companies accountable for their treatment of workers, argued that the profits generated by the South African mining industry were “illusory”, as many of the costs associated with it were passed on to workers, neighbouring communities and the environment.

“If an economy or industry is to be maintained, it must be sustainable and the mining industry is certainly not sustainable if the social and economic costs associated with its activities outweigh the benefits that accrue.”

He further mentioned that, while an industrywide move towards mechanisation could lead to fewer jobs and the requirement of higher-level skills for South African mineworkers, restructuring the current system, which is labour intensive, could also lead to a more sustainable mining industry.

In December last year, Spoor launched a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 17 000 current and former mineworkers and the dependants of deceased workers who had contracted silicosis – a chronic and debilitating lung disease – as a result of working in South African gold mines.

The application targets 30 respondent gold mining companies that owned or operated 78 different gold mines from 1965 – which was when Spoor’s oldest living client started working – to the present.

The respondents include Harmony Gold, Avgold, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Village Main Reef, dormant Simmer & Jack Mines, DRDGold, East Rand Proprietary Mines, Anglo American South Africa, African Rainbow Minerals, Randgold & Exploration Company, JCI Gold and other subsidiaries.

Spoor told Mining Weekly in February that the application was not an appeal for gold mining companies to concede or accept liability, but rather a matter of deciding how to address the issue at hand. He said there was a common understanding among gold mining industry stakeholders, unions and government that the current compensation regime for mineworkers with occupational lung diseases was unjust and needed to be reformed.

He added that the gold mining industry should be willing to pay fair compensation to employees who contracted occupational diseases during their service, but conceded that it was unlikely that occupational diseases and injuries would ever be eliminated in an inherently dangerous industry like mining.

“The cost of occupational diseases and injuries should, therefore, be considered among the costs of doing business,” he said, adding that those costs should be absorbed by the employers and not passed on to workers who were ill and their families, as had been the case until now.
“The mining industry accepts the ‘polluter pays’ principle, in relation to its environmental liabilities, so why would it object to being held accountable for their employees who get sick – through no fault of their own – during the course of their employment at its mines? On the basis of my dealings with the industry, I believe that it is willing to accept that responsibility.”

He further mentioned that previous efforts to reform the compensation regime had stalled, owing to the cost of funding the improvement process, especially with regard to former mineworkers who worked in mines that have long since closed shop.

Spoor said that the class action holds the key to unlocking the current stalemate, which is why the gold industry needed to carefully consider supporting the application for the class-action procedure before the application was brought before the South Gauteng High Court.

Spoor added that the challenges currently facing deep-level gold mining and the creation of a safe and healthy environment ran deep.

He told delegates, however, that if his litigation against gold mining companies was successful and if the right of workers to receive fair compensation was firmly established by law, employers would be obliged to recalculate the economics of their mining processes.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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