Manganese poisoning: Negotiations falter

Attempts to reach an out-of-court settlement between a KwaZulu-Natal ferromanganese factory and its workers over compensation for manganese poisoning foundered on Wednesday.

The workers’ trade union and attorney accused the company, Assmang, of negotiating in bad faith.

Richard Spoor, the attorney representing about 40 workers, said: “Negotiations have been suspended by the company. The company has been negotiating in bad faith. They are not taking responsibility.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa (Numsa) accused Assmang—a subsidiary of mining magnate Patrice Motsepe’s African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) group—of making “a major U-turn” by dismissing workers’ claims that they were dying of manganism.

The Assmang factory is located midway between Pietermaritzburg and Durban near the small town of Cato Ridge.

Said Numsa national spokesperson Mziwakhe Hlangani: “After more than a year of bitter-sweet negotiations in respect of compensation settlements, the company management claimed that new medical evidence had emerged and abruptly suspended further negotiations on compensation settlements.”

He added: “The profit-seeking multinational has completely turned its back on those workers who suffered debilitating conditions and incapacity after being exposed to high levels of manganese at its plant outside Pietermaritzburg.

“Manganism sufferers are now going through worse difficulties without medication after the company stopped payment of medical costs to doctors attending to those employees.”

However, ARM chief executive Jan Steenkamp on Wednesday denied the union’s claim that the company had stopped payments to the workers’ doctors, describing them as “utter nonsense”.

Hlangani also said that Assmang had demanded that “workers reported to be affected by manganism should be tested through its specialised screening processes because it [Assmang] learned that the symptoms could be attributed to a number of possible diseases or conditions, not necessarily only to manganism”.

Responding to the union’s allegation, Steenkamp said: “We have been engaging with specialist doctors at the University of Cape Town to determine and diagnose the symptoms properly. We don’t want to have a case were people are diagnosed incorrectly.

“We have also been paying two of the individuals well above the income. All of those who claim to be affected are getting their normal pay plus an allowance.

“We will keep on compensating all of them until we have identified exactly who has contracted manganese poisoning,” he said.

Manganism is acquired by overexposure to airborne manganese and is a disease that affects the sufferer’s central nervous system, leaving them with symptoms very similar to Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Its similarity to MS, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease make diagnosis difficult. The disease was first recognised among miners in Scotland back in 1835.

The Department of Labour launched a public inquiry after six cases of manganism were reported among the workers at the Cato Ridge smelter. More than 100 people attended the first sitting of the inquiry in April last year.

During that first session, Bryan Broekman, chief executive of Assmang, told the inquiry that the company, which had been processing manganese for 46 years, did not examine workers for manganese poisoning until a 2005 television documentary on the disease.

Spoor told the inquiry at the time that his clients had only become aware of the risk after watching a South African Broadcasting Corporation Special Assignment broadcast in April 2005.

In July 2007 Business Report reported that the company had been warned by Harold Gayze of occupational hygienist Occutech that the dust levels in the factory were too high.

Subsequent sessions of the public inquiry in July, October and December were postponed at the request of all the parties to apparently negotiate better injury-compensation payouts and safety measures.

The inquiry, under the chair of Vuli Sibisi, is set to resume on February 25.

Spoor said that when the inquiry resumes on February 25, an “adversarial relationship” between the parties would exist.

“They are in denial mode. There is no trust and confidence between us,” he said.—Sapa

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