March 6, 2011

Court expands mineworkers' health rights

South Africa has the world's largest gold reserves and 90 percent of its platinum, but the days when its mining houses ruled the roost are fading. While commodity prices have boomed over the past decade, mining investment in the world's fifth-biggest mining economy has stagnated and the sector is shrinking. Poor power supplies and infrastructure have long been a problem; of growing concern is the political climate, which now includes radical elements in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) calling for outright nationalisation of mining firms.

Support from large British and American legal firms will be enlisted to help tens of thousands of former miners and their families sue South African mining companies for failing to adequately compensate them for occupational lung diseases. This comes after the landmark Constitutional Court judgment ruling in favour of former miner Thembekile Mankayi, who had been paid little more than R16 000 after he contracted chronic lung disease while working for AngloGold Ashanti, Africa’s biggest gold producer.

The Concourt judgment overrides an earlier ruling by the Johannesburg High Court that miners who had already been compensated in terms of the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act, could not sue their former employers for further damages. Human rights attorney Richard Spoor said the Concourt judgment opened the door to claims from as many as 280.000 afflicted miners and their families in South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho. Representatives of AngloGold Ashanti could not be contacted for comment on planned legal action, but in a radio interview on Moneyweb, spokesman Alan Fine said the judgment had removed “one pillar of any defence” mining companies could use in future. He said AngloGold acknowledged that the Mankayi case had highlighted “a number of occupational health challenges that the industry faces”, including working to improve the management of dust underground to prevent lung diseases.

Human rights attorney Spoor said the ruling would give rise to better working conditions and better compensation schemes for miners who contracted illnesses from working underground. “The current statutory compensation scheme is woefully inadequate. Workers receive less than 20 percent of what they’re entitled to.” He also emphasised that chronic lung disease was rife in deep-level gold mining because of ineffective ventilation. “Appropriate ventilation is very expensive and in South Africa miners are working 4km underground. Internationally the deepest they go is several hundred metres.” (Indepentent Online)

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