South African unions demand better protection, benefits for mine workers

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The unions have alleged the bosses are putting people over profit in the sector where 33 workers have died since the beginning of the year

By Musawenkosi Cabe / The Dawn News / May 11, 2018

South Africa is among the countries with the most deep and dangerous mines in the world. Every day, mineworkers risk their lives to make ends meet.

Last week, following an earthquake, 13 workers were trapped in a South African gold mine, the Masakhane Shaft, operated by Sibanye-Stillwaters. They were all rescued but seven died from the injuries sustained while the others have been admitted to hospital.

Following this tragedy, organized labour unions made a scathing attack on both the state and the mining companies for their failure to properly implement safety precautions despite such accidents occurring regularly. In 2017, the death toll from accidents in mines rose to 82 and already in 2018, according to the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), 33 mineworkers have lost their lives while at work.

In February, two workers died in the Ikamva-Kloof mine, also run by Sibanye-Stillwaters. Immediately after the incident, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) called for the shutdown of the mine until such a time that the company could guarantee the safety of workers under  the ground.

SAFTU has called upon the government, particularly, the Departments of Mineral Resources and Labour to urgently initiate an investigation “and take action to prevent any further such tragedies.”

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which unseated the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM – an affiliate of COSATU) in the aftermath of 2012 Marikana massacre as the majority union, has also called on the Department of Mineral Resources to establish a commission of inquiry, similar to the 1993 Leon Commission of Inquiry, into the safety and health of workers in the mining industry. The current regulations are outdated and do not protect workers, they pointed out.

The unions have called on the government to fulfill its regulatory role as mandated by the law. The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Act empowers the government to take away the licence of any mining company that does not invest in the socio-economic welfare of workers and mining communities. However, this corporate social responsibility has not been implemented because of the fear of capital flight and reluctance on the part of foreign firms to invest in the country.

Unions and progressive forces in South Africa have demonstrated against the insensitive approach the government has taken in dealing with the deaths and the poor working conditions in the mining sector. The unions have pointed out that the non-interventionist stance of the government is actually a reflection of a bias in favour of the mine bosses. NUMSA has noted that “the Department of Mineral Resources has allowed mining companies to act with impunity when it comes to mining safety.”

AMCU has alleged that mining companies spend a fortune in increasing security to prevent any form of what they call illegal mining but are reluctant to spend on the safety of workers who toil underground. AMCU has condemned the  “profits before people” approach of the mining bosses. For NUMSA, the prioritization of profits and neglect of workers’ safety “is a reflection of the industry’s attitude towards the life of an African worker.”

The observations of the revolutionary philosopher from Martinique, Frantz Fanon in the Wretched of the Earth, that the colonised  “die there, it matters not where, nor how’, is the South African reality. African labour is easily disposable without any criminal or civil claim consequences. The colonial character of the mining industry has not changed. Workers continue to be exploited and killed without recourse, unions have noted.

One of the key points the unions have raised is the unsatisfactory compensatory structure for occupational injuries and fatalities. AMCU has claimed it is “simply ludicrous that a life of a mineworker is worth 36 months of basic employment salary …” It is important to note that some mineworkers earn as little R4,500 a month.

Despite the sector being the largest contributor to the GDP of the country, mineworkers continue to earn what unions have called, slave wages. Ahead of the Marikana massacre, a major demand was a living wage of R12,500 a month (it is worth noting that the recent  labour reforms propose a minimum wage of only R20 an hour).

Unions have also sought that the families of those who die while working should be able to sue the companies directly for compensation, in cases of negligence on their part.

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