BLACK LUNG DISEASE
Used, abused and discarded – former coal miners from Limpopo launch class action against Exxaro
‘There are occupational exposure limits that the mines are obligated to comply with, but we have seen across the board that these limits have not been complied with,’ says an attorney from Richard Spoor Inc, which is suing coal mining companies for failing to protect workers.
Coal miners from the rural district of Vhembe in Limpopo have launched a class action against mining company Exxaro Group. They are being represented by Richard Spoor Inc attorneys.
The workers say they are ill and battling to survive as a result of various health conditions contracted while working on the Tshikondeni mine without adequate protective equipment or any compensation from the mine. This is the third class action Richard Spoor Inc has launched against coal mining companies.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Anglo American, coal producers to be slapped with class action over miners’ lung diseases
Father Stan Muyebe has since 2015 been trying to get compensation for miners who contracted the lung disease pneumoconiosis, commonly known as “black lung disease”, as a result of exposure to coal dust at Tshikondeni mine, now owned by Exxaro.
Muyebe is a member of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. He told Daily Maverick that he was alerted to the plight of the miners while helping displaced rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo to navigate the land restitution process.
He says that after hearing the pleas for assistance from miners, he approached attorneys at Richard Spoor Inc who he knew had been helping gold miners who contracted pulmonary silicosis.
“RSI [Richard Spoor Inc], alongside the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, conducted a comprehensive investigation into working conditions within the coal mining industry, interviewing mine workers suffering from coal mine dust lung diseases such as pneumoconiosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) due to exposure to coal mine dust in mines,” Richard Spoor Inc said in a statement.
“COPD is a chronic lung disease, characterised by breathing difficulty and airflow limitations. Both pneumoconiosis and COPD caused by coal dust are wholly preventable diseases.”
Muyebe says that at the time of consultations with the coal miners, they did not even know what diseases they had, save to say they were experiencing a tight pain in their chests, bouts of breathlessness, coughing which brought up black mucus, and extreme sweating, especially at night.
The miners, who are between the ages of 40 and 60+, said they were now unable to find employment or even do simple chores as a result of their deteriorating health.
Muyebe said a lot of miners had died since the class action process began. However, their beneficiaries were continuing the fight.
A tearful Jane Mulaudzi told Daily Maverick that, in 2012, her husband of 43 years, Thifhelumbilu Simon Mulaudzi, began complaining of chest pains, coughing uncontrollably and struggling to breathe while working at Tshikondeni mine.
“He consulted the mine doctors and all they did was give him an asthma pump, without telling him what was wrong. He used to get very weak and was vomiting up something that was black until he couldn’t work any more in 2014, which is when the mine closed.”
Mulaudzi said she took care of her husband as best as she could until he died in 2021, leaving her with their two children and seven grandchildren. She says her life was very hard after her husband stopped working as she was also unemployed. Now she survives on the R350 SRD grant and through selling mopane worms.
“Now that my husband has died I also wish I could die because I am barely surviving. The mine did not even send a message of condolence when my husband died.”
Muyebe said, “Our work in assisting the miners is on two levels: first is their economic conditions; mine workers have been at the centre of creating wealth for the mining companies for decades… When we visited the sick miners in their communities we found high levels of poverty, but these are the people who have been instrumental in creating extreme wealth for mining companies and also contributing to the energy system.
“What is sad is that in their conditions of poverty and sickness, it is mostly the women who are bearing the burden, taking care of their husbands or children who are sick from this black lung disease.
“Second is their health conditions; their quality of life has deteriorated as most are in their 40s, 50s and 60s and cannot find work. They also find accessing healthcare and treatment difficult.
“During our meetings with the miners, most of them had this sense that they were about to die at any time and so we have had to do a lot of counselling. The healing that is needed is not only compensation but also about the restoration of dignity,” Muyebe said.
Muyebe went on to tell Daily Maverick that a lot of the miners reported being dismissed without being informed about their medical conditions, saying that this suggested mining companies saw miners as “disposable goods”.
He said he had dealt with a case of a family of three generations, a grandfather, father and son, having contracted lung disease.
“This also means that three generations of women were impacted.”
Speaking to Daily Maverick, 58-year-old Titus Muvhali, who is one of the affected miners in the class action, said that if his child were to one day tell him that he is going to work in a mine, he would not try to stop him.
“I would warn him about safety and tell him about my experience and disease, but I can’t stop him from working in order to survive. Most people who live around here used to work on the mine…”
Muyebe said, “It is an indictment of rural development that the only source of income in many communities is mining… Rural communities seem to mainly be seen as a means to extract minerals and cheap labour.”
According to Chloe Hoffmann, a Richard Spoor Inc attorney in the class action case, they are pursuing Exxaro on the basis of negligent performance of their duty to provide a safe working environment for their mine workers, which has resulted in serious lung diseases.
This is the third coal mining class action initiated by Richard Spoor Inc against various companies. The first two were against South32 Group – including BHP Billiton and Seriti Power – and Anglo American.
“Our consultations with mineworkers are devastating … their stories are of working underground at sometimes up to 11km underground in extreme heat,” Hoffmann said.
“Our predominant concern, however, is their exposure to dust levels. There are occupational exposure limits that the mines are obligated to comply with, but we have seen across the board that these limits have not been complied with.
“Although there have been some attempts to provide protection to mine workers, they certainly have not been sufficient.”
During consultations with miners in the class action, where Daily Maverick was present, Hoffmann explained that one of the important items of safety equipment that were required were dust masks; however, miners reported only having received either no dust masks in the earlier years of working at the mine, or later receiving them at infrequent intervals as they worked.
“Of course, the mining environment in and of itself is dangerous work, but we find that the protections that are available should be given to mineworkers… Production and profit are being preferred over the protections that should be provided.”
Daily Maverick reached out to Exxaro for comment, but it had not responded at the time of publication. DM
Several of the miners and their families will be profiled in Daily Maverick newspaper 168 this Saturday.