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Amcu demands universal Covid-19 testing at mines – but that is not about to happen

Impala Platinum's Marula mine in Limpopo was one of three mining companies named in a scathing report released this week. The report found that the companies were not complying with laws compelling them to uplift local communities. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union has demanded that the mining sector carry out universal Covid-19 testing on its workforce. The industry has significant screening capacity but executives who spoke on background said it cannot possibly test everyone. The bottom line is that it is not going to happen.

The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy has gazetted minimum Covid-19 health and safety protocols for the mining sector after it was compelled to do so by the Labour Court after the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) approached the bench about the issue. But the union is still seeing red. 

“Amcu has come out calling for universal testing of all mineworkers following the rapid spread of the virus in the mining sector. The union is adamant that this is the only way to curb a possible crisis in the sector,” Amcu said in a statement On Monday 18 May.

Amcu went on to say that it was “futile to only test workers who fail screening, as this would mean that they would have to display symptoms first. It is common knowledge that some cases of Covid-19 are asymptomatic, and recent studies have actually shown that these cases are more prevalent than previously thought.”

The union said it was not opposed to the reopening of the sector, which has been rebooting to 50% capacity. But it wanted to ensure this was done safely. 

“We now demand that each and every worker must be tested for Covid-19 before he or she is allowed to go underground,” Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa was quoted as saying.

It is not clear if Amcu wants daily testing before miners go underground and Mathunjwa did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bottom line is that this is not going to happen. 

The sector employs more than 400,000 workers and while it is not clear how many miners are working at present, it is probably safe to say it is at least 200,000. According to official data, South Africa conducted just over 65,000 tests in the week to 10 May, fewer than 10,000 a day. Tests in the private sector cost between R900 and R2,000 a pop, according to anecdotal reports.

“Most of this testing is required for people in the public with symptoms and primary contacts. It is not even possible to do a regular test for healthcare practitioners working with Covid-19 patients. We have over 400,000 people working in the mines,” said one industry executive who spoke to Business Maverick on condition of anonymity. This sentiment was echoed by other executives.

Still, the industry is coming under pressure to ramp up testing as well as screening. Mines and energy Minister Gwede Mantashe said as much on Sunday. And the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has also expressed concerns about the pandemic’s threat to the mining workforce.

Amcu’s call comes after Impala Platinum temporarily closed its Marula mine in Limpopo after 19 employees tested positive for the disease. To its credit, the cases were all caught before anyone went underground and even there, PPEs should help to contain the spread of the virus.

A major concern is the often overcrowded communities — many of them squalid shantytowns — that ring the mines. But that is also a wider South African challenge that has again been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic and the lockdown measures to curb its spread.

It will also be interesting to see what Amcu does next. Mathunjwa has shown a new strategic sense when it comes to picking fights with capital. And the mining sector finds itself between a rockfall and a hard landing on this issue. BM

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