Baby steps to securing mineworker's benefits

TAC members protesting outside the Johannesburg High Court against the South African mines that don’t use preventative measure to minimise the infections of their workers against silicosis. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

TAC members protesting outside the Johannesburg High Court against the South African mines that don’t use preventative measure to minimise the infections of their workers against silicosis. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

At least R5-billion is owed to ex-mineworkers in unclaimed retirement benefits, according to the Financial Services Board. If the amount owed to ex-mineworkers in the form of occupational disease or injury compensation is added, that amount could spiral upwards. Human rights attorney Richard Spoor (who represents former goldmine workers affected by silicosis and their widows) said there are possibly 100 000 to 300 000 people eligible for benefits as a result of medical conditions, which could add R2.5-billion to the total.

And the cost to families and communities is in reality “way more”, he said, because of the multiplier effect: an unpaid benefit means you’re poor, and you’re possibly sick or disabled and you’re unemployed, so you can’t care for your children as well as you would if you were healthy and working. 

A perfect illustration of this intergenerational effect was unfolding as the Mail & Guardian spoke to Rantso Mantsi of the Ex-Miners Association of the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, a member of the Southern Africa Miners Association (Sama). He was dealing with a case at that moment, a mineworker’s widow who was not receiving her husband’s pension. “She is reporting because her child has been expelled from school due to unpaid school fees,” he explained. “He is 16 years old, her last-born.” The older two children are girls who left school early and married young, spurred by poverty. For all three children, the fact that a benefit to which the family is unquestionably entitled has not been paid will have probably lifelong consequences.

Both compensation claims (for which the Compensation Commission for Occupational Diseases bears responsibility) and retirement benefit claims (paid by a handful of retirement funders, such as the Mine Workers Provident Fund) have been a headache for a number of years, but the primary focus here is on retirement benefits. On the one hand, the process has proven difficult for mineworkers and their families to negotiate, and some attempts established to speed up the process, such as the so-called One Stop Shops, are not in practice working that well, according to Mantsi. “There’s a huge distance — cultural, social and geographic — between the people who administer this money and the people who are owed,” said Spoor.

On the other hand, it’s also been difficult for the pension and provident funds to track down ex-mineworkers and their families in order to ensure benefits reach them — data is incomplete, people move around in their home countries, different names may be in use. So there are claims that are long overdue — 15 to 20 years in many cases — which means some ex-mineworkers will have died in the interim. 

“The big picture is that there’s still a lot of money outstanding to a lot of mineworkers,” said Graham Herbert, chief executive of Teba, the 113-year-old recruiter of mineworkers. (Teba, which is the custodian of a huge database of mineworkers over many years, will assist mineworkers to access their benefits for free; it has offered to make data available to other stakeholders who wish to make an effort to trace people owed benefits, but for a fee.) “In our view, the [pension and provident] funds could be doing more to find and pay people.”

Positive developments

However, there is some light on the horizon. In recent years, “quite a lot’s been learned,” says Herbert. One of the lessons has been about creative ways to reach ex-mineworkers and their beneficiaries. 

A radio campaign by Teba in the Eastern Cape last year saw about 140 000 claimants walking through the doors of Teba offices or phoning in. While some of those claims could not be validated, it represents a significant leap forward in reaching missing claimants and shows how boxing smart can achieve this.

Meanwhile, efforts in some neighbouring countries have ramped up, pointing to another key tactic that could improve the picture dramatically, if the whole region followed suit: involving committed government entities.

In Swaziland, for example, Vama Jele of the Swaziland Mineworkers Association (another Sama member) said that following a meeting between the Swaziland government and the Mine Workers Provident Fund, a number of beneficiaries had been identified. Barriers to claims were attended to by the Swaziland ministry of labour, he said, which has taken an active role in short-circuiting the process for miners who are still living. The ministry of social security, along with the ministry of labour, has negotiated with banks to assist beneficiaries in opening accounts at no cost. “It takes only a week or two for an ex-mineworker to get his money.” 

Challenges remain for the widows and children of ex-mineworkers, however, and for some of those pursuing the much older claims. Many of the benefits currently being paid out are for workers who left the mines fairly recently, with the oldest among them dating back seven or eight years.

In Lesotho, Mantsi said there’s been a “great improvement. What we have done is to ask the Lesotho ministry of home affairs to assist”. The starting point was a list provided by one of the funds, Sentinel Retirement Fund, which provided for miners with blasting certificates and other qualifications. The list contained little more than names and passport numbers, with no village or district or any form of address. But with home affairs’ co-operation “messages have been sent out through all the structures in the country to look for miners, and we are finding them”. 

The Ex-Miners Association is working closely with the ministries of labour and health as well, and this has demonstrably helped to smooth the way for beneficiaries. Practical measures have also shown promise. Using people who know Swaziland’s rural areas well has paid off, said Jele, not only in identifying beneficiaries but also in processing their claims. “We have volunteers to collect all the necessary documents, without any salary or contribution from the beneficiary. It works very well.” The Swaziland organisation has also hired couriers to transport documents safely and securely.

Chamber of Mines in play

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Mines in South Africa is the representative of companies that formerly employed mineworkers, and it has announced that it will be calling an Unclaimed Benefits Strategy Alignment Workshop. The date has not yet been finalised, but it is hoped that it will take place before the end of September 2015.

“It is a matter of public concern to mining industry stakeholders, including the department of mineral resources, the National Union of Mineworkers and the companies that are members, that there are large numbers of former mineworkers or their dependents who have not been paid out their unclaimed benefits,” said the chamber in a statement. 

The chamber has invited the Mine Workers Provident Fund, Mines 1970 Pension & Provident Fund, Sentinel Retirement Fund, Anglo Platinum Retirement (Pension & Provident Fund), Impala Workers Provident Fund, and Lonmin Pension & Provident Fund.  The aim apparently is “to facilitate a common, collective approach to the tracing of these former mineworkers and their dependents and to ensure they are paid out”.

Herbert said Teba, which will attend, is looking forward to reports on progress. Interestingly, however, the Sama organisations have apparently not been invited, so they will not be able to contribute information about the successes they’ve achieved, which, though relatively small in comparison to the large backlog, may suggest some tactics to help.

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