Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

‘More needed’ for miners to work again

‘Unlocking” even a limited part of South Africa’s mining operations amid the Covid-19 pandemic puts at risk about 250000 mineworkers — a group roughly the same size as the population of eMalahleni in Mpumalanga, in the heart of the country’s coal and power complex.

This is how Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) deputy president Jeff Mphahlele illustrates the potential scale of coronavirus infections as mineworkers return to work amid the relaxing of lockdown regulations.

Mphahlele’s affidavit forms part of the union’s efforts to compel Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe to implement stronger measures to curb the threat of Covid-19 to mineworkers.

The main part of Amcu’s litigation will be heard in the Labour Court next Wednesday. The union’s application is supported by experts who say that it “is highly likely that there will be deaths as a result of the decision to return to mining”.

Amcu and the experts cite the frequency of lung diseases among mineworkers, as well as the cramped conditions they work in as evidence of their increased vulnerability to the coronavirus.

Next week, Amcu will ask the court to order the minister to declare Covid-19 a health hazard under the Mine Health and Safety Act and to publish measures to minimise health risks associated with the disease. These measures should include compulsory occupational health and safety inspections and medical surveillance.

The minister and the chief inspector of mines have indicated their intention to oppose Amcu’s court bid.

The court battle comes in the wake of last week’s announcement by Mantashe that the lockdown of the mining industry will be relaxed and that production will restart at half its capacity.

A set of new regulations were also announced, outlining measures to be taken by companies to protect mineworkers as they return to work.

Under these conditions, mining companies are expected to implement rigorous screening and testing and make arrangements to transport workers to and from work.

The mining industry must also provide quarantine facilities for workers who have tested positive for Covid-19.

But these measures were not enough to temper fears that ramped up mining operations will trigger the spread of Covid-19 in the mines and by extension in vulnerable mining communities.

In his affidavit, Mphahlele calls these measures “vague and unclear”.

“We are presented with no alternative but to bring this application on an urgent basis. The potential for ongoing and immediate harm is very real and serious,” he says.

“Our members and their families face severe prejudice with the risk of death, permanent disability from permanent lung impairment if they survive a serious infection or painful sickness.”

Mphahlele says in his affidavit that existing measures “rely upon the employer’s good faith”.

He adds: “While Amcu accepts that some mining companies may rise to the occasion, unco-ordinated self-regulation is simply inadequate in the face of the risk mineworkers face.”

An expert opinion, compiled by occupational health professors Rodney Ehrlich, Jill Murray, Rajen Naidoo and David Rees, notes that the risk of returning to work is high “both for miners and as a result of the potential to impact on transmission more widely”.

Mitigating this risk “will require commitment, substantial resources and ongoing evaluation,” the experts say.

“While the mines have the ability to transport employees, maintain gate control and screenings, conduct regular employee training and education, provide medical facilities on site, conduct medical screening and provide personal protective equipment, they have little or no experience with managing an emerging infectious disease of this type,” the opinion reads.

“The current situation requires new practices, vigilance and accurate information on which to act.”

The experts add: “Mines are no longer closed communities” and “local health systems need to be aware of the potential impact for amplification of the epidemic by mineworkers moving between work, surrounding local communities and rural areas”.

They conclude that if mineworkers do return to work, the risk of widespread infections and death “cannot be eliminated”. And surmising that the current measures do not adequately address the safety concerns of mineworkers, their families and communities, the experts add: “More is required.”

Last week, the Minerals Council welcomed the unlocking of mining operations and the accompanying measures announced by Mantashe.

Given the mining sector’s comprehensive healthcare infrastructure, the industry is well equipped to screen, test and manage workers who test positive for Covid-19, the council said in a statement.

The council’s chief executive Roger Baxter called the government’s approach to fighting the pandemic and enabling the economy “pragmatic”.

He said: “We commit the industry to the prioritisation of health and safety of employees as this phase-in gathers steam, with all the preventative and mitigating controls to fight Covid-19 in place.”

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Coko vs S ruling: The case against a subjective test...

Acting judge Tembeka Ngcukaitobi’s acquittal of a rape suspect has raised controversy, but legal experts say the fault lay with legislators and not the court

DA’s egregious sexual harassment case finally begins

The party is accused of protecting a councillor, who’s also implicated in R1.2m graft

More top stories

Lucas Radebe: ‘My football career began behind my parents’ back’

Soccer legend Lucas ‘Rhoo’ Radebe is a busy man, but he made time in his hectic schedule to speak to Ntombizodwa Makhoba about his fondest childhood memories, how his soccer career began, and, as a father of eight, his legacy

Coko vs S ruling: The case against a subjective test...

Acting judge Tembeka Ngcukaitobi’s acquittal of a rape suspect has raised controversy, but legal experts say the fault lay with legislators and not the court

Defend journalists and media freedom in Eswatini

Journalists are censored through cruel and illegitimate detention, torture and the removal of means to disseminate information to citizens crying – and dying – for it

It’s safe to open the beaches, says UPL after chemical...

Agrochemical producer UPL said it has paid R250-million in chemical spill clean-up
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×