MAC/20: Mines and Communities

The Dark Heart of Mining

Published by MAC on 2009-02-23
Source: The Times (South Africa)

SHAFTED: Mineworkers continue to pay for economic growth with their health and lives

The real price of gold is not what you see at the end of the news

Few truly care about dangers, writes Paula Akugizibwe

THE most depressing thing about the findings of theSouth African health and safety audit produced by the department of minerals and energy last year is not the shocking state of affairs it revealed, but the sense of deja vu that comes with it.

In 1995, Judge Ramon Leon's commission issued a damning report on health and safety in South African mines and said "radical" steps needed to be taken to address this. Thirteen years later, Leon's findings still hold true.

Mining contributes at least six percent of GDP, but at what human cost? The latest audit's 2007 estimates put annual fatalities at 221, new cases of pulmonary tuberculosis at 4482, cases of noise-induced hearing loss at 1820 and mine's compliance to health and safety regulations at 66 percent.

It is a frightful situation - and on paper, everyone is greatly concerned about health and safety on the mines. In reality, few people with decision-making power seem to be concerned at all. The audit report could not be more blunt: " There is a pervasive culture of non-compliance (by mining companies) to legislative requirements (on health and safety). Inquiry after inquiry makes findings to the effect that risk assessments are not conducted, training is not done, early-morning examinations are not done, equipment is not maintained and the list goes on and on."

The list goes on and on, but at the end of the day, the question remains : Who pays the real price of gold? The answer is uncomfortable: for years and years, mineworkers and their families and communities have largely borne the social, economic and public health burden of the dark side of mining.

The crystalline silica dust coats their lungs until they wheeze for breath. The piece of equipment that hasn't been changed in more than 30 years eventually collapses takes and mineworkers' lives and their families' livelihoods with it.

The TB bacteria that circulate unchecked in the shafts and squalid hostels has resulted in a rate of new TB infections in gold mines that, increasing exponentially with HIV every year, may be up to 10 times the national infection rate. For TB, if nothing else, most gold mines in South Africa should be declared disaster areas.

The real price of gold is not what you see on TV at the end of the news. The real price of gold is hidden in rural corners of the country and other countries in the region from which migrant labour streams. And the people who pay the real price of gold are often left with little or nothing to show for it - no compensation, no rehabilitation, no justice.

Why, for a sector that is so significant, has so little effort been put into developing more effective regulation? The system of administrative fines for non-compliance failed to serve as a deterrent, admits the audit.

"Provision is made in the Act for referral of cases to the director of public prosecution where negligence has resulted in death or serious injury. Every year referrals are made, but no prosecution has ever taken place."

The Mines Health and Safety Act was recently revised to allow for stricter punishment, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. At all stages, mineworkers are failed by the system.
And the mines' health and safety representatives are inadequately trained and unclear of their rights. No procedures or training exist for miners to refuse to work in unsafe conditions.
Inspectors spend less than half their time on inspections and audits. Almost a third of inspector posts were vacant in July last year.

The general sentiment on compensation was captured by a health officer at AngloGold Ashanti last year in the title of an article he wrote - "Miners' compensation: Who cares?"
A 2004 actuarial study showed mining companies would have to pay 100 times their contributions to cover claims for occupational disease.

Who cares? Nobody, it seems. But we all should. This is, quite simply, a matter of justice.
When it comes to health and safety, the mining sector has a long, long history of bad, bad behaviour. The failure to correct this has effectively endorsed injustice as the foundation of the most powerful economic sector in the country.

The Aids and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (Arasa) is launching a campaign to demand reform in the management of, and compensation for, occupational TB in the mining sector.
TB is responsible for more deaths in South Africa than any other disease. It is even more disastrously out of control on gold mines. As mines thrive on migrant labour, the burden of the disease is spread across the region when workers return home, and no systems for accountability exist to address this.

We call on everyone to support the campaign and, as the elections approach, to ask leaders the tough questions that have no simple answers: Who pays the real price of gold? Why? And who cares?

• Akugizibwe is a regional coordinator at Arasa, a partnership of NGOs that promotes a rights-based response to HIV and TB

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