The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) have called for accountability after six mineworkers died in a fire at Palabora Mining Company.
The copper mine confirmed on Monday morning that six workers were killed after a blaze erupted in its underground operation in Phalaborwa, Limpopo in the early hours of Sunday morning.
According to Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa, seven workers were trapped underground after they had been dispatched to fix a broken conveyor belt. Palabora confirmed that its rescue teams were able to save one worker, but the rest were killed.
One proto team — a team which specialises in underground rescue operations — was initially deployed to evacuate the trapped workers. But they soon called for back-up, and were joined by three more rescue teams.
“Our proto team worked tirelessly to assist and help our colleagues. We have done everything in our power to help them,” said Palabora spokesperson Lydia Radebe.
The company said that 226 workers were on shift at the time the fire broke out, and 84 had received medical attention.
NUM and Amcu have expressed outrage at the fire. The cause of the blaze has yet to be confirmed, but NUM has said it has been “reliably informed” high temperatures underground were among the reasons the fire sparked.
“As the NUM, we vehemently condemn this kind of incident as there is a high number of fatalities in the mining industry in South Africa this year,” the union said.
“We call upon employers to put lives of mineworkers first so that we can be able to achieve zero harm and zero death in the mining industry.”
The union also said these latest deaths showed a “lack of commitment” by mining companies to “zero harm and zero death by the mining sector”.
The deaths at Palabora have now pushed the mining death toll to more than 31 deaths in 2018. Twenty of these fatalities have been attributed to Sibanye-Stillwater operations.
Mathunjwa reacted to the latest deaths at Palabora, saying that mine owners are negligent in South Africa.
“Whenever you drive over someone you will be charged, so why is it different when it comes to mine owners when miners die on duty? They need to be held accountable as well because mine deaths are becoming fashionable now,” Mathunjwa said in an interview with radio station KayaFM.
The department of national mineral resources has already begun its investigation into the incident, as per its mandate as mining regulator.
The mine where workers died
The Palabora mine is 800-metres deep and remains the only producer of refined copper in South Africa.
The company, which is listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, began operations in 1956 and has grown to produce around 60 000 tonnes of refined copper per year.
It currently supplies 85% of the South African market.
Workers at the mine are represented by Amcu, NUM, and Solidarity. The company confirmed that it was locked in meetings with all three unions on Sunday, and each of the unions will participate in the investigation.
The families of the deceased miners have been informed of their deaths, but their names are only expected to be released once the final investigation report has been completed.