‘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.”