The 26 July settlement to compensate former miners who contracted lung diseases is a victory that merits celebration. Stan Muyebe warns, however, that those affected will draw direct benefit from this ruling only if the trust charged with compensating the miners is well-managed. The Justice and Peace Commission continues to promote the transformation of the extractive industry to eliminate mining-related illnesses.
On 26 July, the Gauteng High Court approved a R5 billion settlement between gold mining companies and former mineworkers who contracted silicosis and tuberculosis (TB) after working in the gold mines from 1965 onwards.
The agreement provides for the establishment of the Tshiamiso Trust, which will manage payments of between R70,000 and R500,000 depending on which of the four categories claimants fall into.
There is reason to celebrate this victory. However, we need to be reminded that, for the sick miners, the struggle for justice is not yet over. There are several issues that characterise this continued struggle.
First, there is the issue of the inadequacy of the amount allocated for compensation. The silicosis settlement agreement is the product of a compromise. For some of the miners, the amount allocated for compensation is insufficient to satisfy the levels of injustice that mining families have suffered historically over the past 100 years.
In the judgment, Judge Windell did well to echo these sentiments when he observed that “this agreement can never make full redress for the loss and harm suffered by gold mine workers and their families and communities over the past 100 years as a result of the epidemic of lung disease that afflicted them”.
There is provision for the class members to opt out of the agreement. It is possible that a few of the victims will resort to this provision. It is most likely that the majority will not do this. For them, their struggle for justice will now shift to the issues of implementation.
Settlement implementation involves the tracing of class members, processing submitted claims, as well as the payment of benefits to eligible claimants. Tshiamiso Trust has been tasked with implementing the settlement.
During the court hearing for the approval of the settlement, concern was raised with respect to the capacity of the Tshiamiso Trust. In March this year, the Southern African Mineworkers’ Association (SAMA) interrogated the capacity issues in relation to ex-miners in neighbouring countries.
The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s (SACBC) Justice and Peace Commission was involved in mediation to identify effective measures to address such concerns. For SAMA and the victims, the task of exercising vigilance over the implementation phase of the settlement now begins.
Inefficiency of the compensation system
The implementation will also remind the miners of broader and outstanding issues regarding the state compensation regime for the ill. The affected miners have been told that there will be an alignment of the compensation via the Tshiamiso Trust and the Medical Bureau of Occupational Disease (MBOD). They are hoping that such alignment will not imply the transfer of the problems besetting the state compensation system to the Tshiamiso Trust.
For decades, the statutory compensation system has been failing the victims. It is riddled with corruption, ineffectiveness and inefficiencies that have worked to the detriment of those affected. There seems to be a lack of political will to address these deficiencies.
It remains to be seen whether the alignment between the statutory mechanism and the Tshiamiso Trust will rectify the deficiencies embedded in the statutory compensation.
Continued struggle for justice
Another issue of concern which gives rise to the continued struggle for justice is that compensation claims in South Africa have taken the form of sector-based claims. There are claims in other sectors within the mining industry that have yet to be advanced.
So far, compensation claims have been advanced against the asbestos and gold sectors. Those who worked for coal mining companies are still waiting for justice. The SACBC Justice and Peace Commission is supporting their cause.
The silicosis case was drawn out over many years before the mining companies opted for negotiations and agreement. Many mine workers died while they waited. This is an ethical traverse. Victims in the coal sector are hoping that their companies learn from the gold mining sector and begin negotiations to avoid drawn out claim cases.
Addressing the causes of mine-related sickness
The root causes of mine-related illnesses still need to be addressed. The silicosis compensation has merely addressed the symptoms.
There is a need to ensure that stronger measures are put in place to prevent a recurrence of mine-related illnesses. It is true that government has made significant efforts in this regard.
In 2000, government signed the C176 – the Safety and Health in Mines Convention, sponsored by the International Labour Organization. In compliance with its obligation under the convention, it has over the years raised mining safety and occupational health standards.
However, as is often the case with other policy regimes in South Africa, such measures have not been accompanied by strong enforcement mechanisms. The SACBC Justice and Peace Commission is preparing a study to highlight such compliance gaps.
A profit-focused mining industry
There are systemic issues that have not been addressed by the silicosis compensation agreement. Silicosis and other mine-related illnesses are a result of the mining industry’s position within the framework of racialised and neoliberal capitalism. This, among other things, prioritises profit over the health of workers.
Within such a framework – which continues to prevail in the mining industry – the health of workers is considered solely as a cost that must be contained to maximise profit. This opens up possibilities for a new pandemic of lung diseases, which will manifest over the next 20 years.
Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, has reminded us that an economic model that prioritises profit over human person kills. The silicosis case has demonstrated that a mining economy that disregards the primacy of a human person for the sake of profit results in illness and death.
We pray that, 20 years from now, we will not be demonstrating in front of the Gauteng High Court in another silicosis litigation, holding placards with the words: “This mining economy kills.”