April 28, 2011

Former mineworkers to sue Anglo American

Eighteen ex-mineworkers from the President Steyn gold mine in the Free State are taking Anglo American to court, claiming they developed a combination of respiratory infections, including silicosis and tuberculosis, from prolonged underground exposure to silica dust since the late 1970s. The case is likely to be heard in the South Gauteng High Court in 2012, after seven years of research by a high-powered legal team from Legal Aid South Africa and the Legal Resources Centre, advised by UK-based human rights law firm Leigh Day & Co. The 18 test cases have been selected to best represent the circumstances of tens of thousands of other ex-mineworkers who -- if their litigation against Anglo American South Africa (AASA) is successful -- could also claim damages from other companies in the mining industry.

Silicosis is a progressive, non-infectious but incurable condition, the effects of which take several years to become apparent - sometimes long after a mineworker has left employment. It weakens the lungs and increases the sufferer’s chances of contracting tuberculosis and silico-tuberculosis.

Lawyers representing the former mineworkers, who come from the Eastern Cape, Free State and Lesotho, argue that the mine’s former parent company, Anglo American South Africa, knew of the long-term respiratory effects of exposing miners to silica dust, but failed to adequately advise its subsidiaries operating the mines. The 18 silicotic miners were exposed to dust long after they should have been withdrawn from the mine entirely or allocated to less dusty work. The 18 ex-mineworkers are litigating against a parent company, not a direct employer, but their arguments are similar.

According to Leigh Day partner Richard Meeran: "Anglo have been operating for decades and in that time they’ve seen people dying. They knew with certainty that their operations were unsafe. That’s not just negligence, is it? It shows an incredible disregard for human life over a long period of time." Anglo spokesperson Pranill Ramchander said the company would argue that "the claimants were employed by South African gold mining companies in which AASA had an interest of less than 25% ... these companies were responsible for the health and safety of their employees and took reasonable steps to protect them". He said: "Anglo American is sympathetic towards those miners who have contracted silicosis and fully supports initiatives ... to ensure that they are properly treated and provided with statutory compensation and that silicosis is ultimately eliminated altogether."

Researchers Neil White and Anna Trapido estimated in the late 1990s that the entire South African mining industry would have to pay around R10-billion to compensate all its former mineworkers with respiratory diseases scattered around Southern Africa. In its 2010 financial results, AASA's parent company, Anglo American plc, said it had doubled its operating profit to $9.8-billion from the previous year.

The South African Chamber of Mines declined to comment on the implications of the case for the industry as a whole, saying that any speculation would be premature.

According to National Union of Mineworkers’ health and safety chair Peter Bailey the union believes that "if people have been harmed in the execution of their duties, then employers have a responsibility towards them". Bailey said that in 2005 the industry had identified ways to reduce dust levels underground and a review is scheduled this year. "There is much more vigilance in the workplace than there was 10, 15 years ago and technology has advanced greatly, but we will only be able to confidently say everything is hunky-dory after the review process."

Mineworkers who contract respiratory diseases are compensatable under the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act; the compensation is funded by the mining industry and administered by the compensation commissioner under the department of labour. According to the Act former mineworkers are entitled to a free medical examination every two years. Should they be diagnosed with a "compensatable disease" -- usually silicosis -- they are entitled to a maximum one-off benefit of R47 160 and then a second one-off benefit up to a maximum of R105 012 when their condition deteriorates. These payments are based on the plaintiffs salaries. (Mail & Guardian)

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