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Anglo American, coal producers to be slapped with class action over miners’ lung diseases

Anglo American, coal producers to be slapped with class action over miners’ lung diseases
The class action suit, which includes working and retired women and men mineworkers, was filed in the Gauteng Local Division’s High Court in mid-October. The class suit has been brought against nine mining companies owned by the Anglo American group.(Photo: Adobestock)

In an effort to rectify mining injustices, human rights lawyers at Richard Spoor Inc have filed a class action suit against some of South Africa’s biggest mining companies, on behalf of retired coal miners who are living with the detrimental health effects of decades of unsafe working conditions, the firm announced on Tuesday. 

“I’m very happy that Richard Spoor Inc is taking on this class action suit because the mine doesn’t care about us! You work and you work and then when you become sick, they don’t care. And you end up sitting at home. They don’t even compensate you; you just get service compensation,” said Ntombi Mahlangu, a former mineworker at Anglo American-owned mines.

The class action suit, which includes working and retired women and men mineworkers, was filed in the Gauteng Local Division’s High Court in mid-October. The class suit has been brought against nine mining companies owned by the Anglo American group. The companies listed as defendants include Thungela’s Operations and Resources divisions, Rietvlei Mining, Mafube coal mining, Butsanani Energy Investment Holdings and South Africa Coal Operations. 

Some of the diseases that the mineworkers have suffered and continue to suffer from include coal workers pneumoconiosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as a result of coal mine dust exposure. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Application for class action suit over lung disease filed against oxygen-deprived coal sector

The class action is centred on the undermining and failure to meet the duty of care owed to the employees which has resulted in the poor health of the miners — entitling the mineworkers to financial compensation, Chloe Hoffmann, associate at Richard Spoor Inc told Daily Maverick. 

“[The diseases] make it very difficult for our clients to breathe. There’s often wheezing, it impacts their ability to move around because their bodies aren’t able to breathe in enough oxygen and many of our clients struggle with chest pains. It’s like being sick with the flu and having phlegm clogging your lungs and having to cough it out. It’s very similar to that but far worse. So they suffer from a lot of pain…

“Because many of our clients are much older, they struggle to walk uphill and carry heavy objects, and in many instances, can’t take care of themselves anymore. The treatment of these diseases is quite complicated and requires special treatment that our clients are not able to afford. So they are left in a position where they are not able to breathe, their chests are constricted and they’re not able to be on the proper treatment. Many of our clients have already passed away from these diseases as they progressively get worse,” said Hoffmann. 

Richard Spoor has asked the court if they can proceed with the class action suit in order to expand the suit to include a broader group of people. Currently, the class in the suit consists of two groups. The first includes mineworkers who fell ill and worked for mines under the Anglo American Group’s companies. The other class includes the dependents of the mineworkers who have passed away as a result of the illness/es contracted from the mines. 

The firm is seeking compensation for both groups, factoring in the cost of medical treatments, pain and suffering, and loss of support for dependents, among other factors. Most of the miners in the class action have retired, with some having been discharged for being medically unfit. 

Sibusiso Tshabalala, media liaison for Anglo American said in a statement that the company had been informed of the class action by Richard Spoor on behalf of the coal miners. He continued that the company had not yet been served with the application, but would study it once it had been received and consider a position. 

Mpumi Sithole, media liaison at Thungela, told Daily Maverick in an email that the company had also received notification of the class action suit, and was in the process of considering it and the potential consequences for the company, alongside its next steps. 

Five years ago, a similar case was brought forward by Richard Spoor Inc and Motley Rice LLC — one of the largest plaintiff litigation firms in the US — against Harmony Gold and other defendants. The case saw the gold miners and their relatives receive compensation for silicosis contracted through silica dust exposure in the mines. 

Ntombi Mahlangu, 48, told Daily Maverick that she worked as an underground electrician at Anglo-owned Goedehoop and Greenside Coal Mines. Mahlangu added that the dust had worsened from one mine to the other. 

“When you blew your nose, the tissue would be full of dust. Even on your face, there would be dust. They retrenched us in 2015, tested us for medical fitness and said that we were okay. I only realised in 2023 when the class action suits investigations started that I wasn’t well,” said Mahlangu. 

The former mineworker said that because she was not aware of the disease, she thought it was a recurring flu and would treat it with that medication. 

“They know that we are exposed to dust. They give us dust masks to protect ourselves …and [the mines] should have seen that we were unwell as the medical tests should have picked that up, but they didn’t say…I’m very happy that Richard Spoor Inc is taking on this class action suit because the mine doesn’t care about us,” said Mahlangu. DM

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  • Joe Irwin says:

    Now all that needs to happen is for the people living around the Eskom coal power stations, as well as the Eskom employees to take similar action against the state. That will put the cat among the pigeons.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    In an effort to rectify mining injustices? Really? Just ask yourself one question – who gets really rich out of these so-called class actions? And it ain’t the complainants …

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