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MINERS’ RIGHTS OP-ED

Mining companies must right the severe wrongs of the past before moving on

Mining companies must right the severe wrongs of the past before moving on
Coal at the Mafube open-cast coal mine, operated by Exxaro Resources. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Mining Indaba encourages investment and transformation of the mining sector, however, there is a lot that needs to be rectified, starting with human rights.

The 30th annual Mining Indaba in Cape Town has hosted a number of businesses, investors and industry leaders to discuss the prospects of mining in South Africa and across the African continent.

During his keynote address, President Cyril Ramaphosa claimed that the mining sector in South Africa has transformed during his administration. He noted that the mining sector currently contributes around 7.5% towards GDP and accounts for about 60% of South African exports by value, adding that the democratic government “has been able to effect wide-ranging and sustainable transformation of the sector over the past three decades”.

Ramaphosa said that during apartheid, the mining sector was “notorious for labour exploitation, human rights violations, and poor health and safety standards”.

It is ironic then, that 30 years into democracy, we are still fighting for the recognition and protection of miners’ rights.

In 2023, law firm Richard Spoor Incorporated (RSI) launched four class action certification applications against several of the biggest coal mining companies in South Africa, namely the South32 Group, including BHP Billiton, Seriti, Exxaro, Anglo American, and Glencore.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Used, abused and discarded – former coal miners from Limpopo launch class action against Exxaro

This litigation seeks to hold the captains of industry liable for the breach of their legal duties to provide a safe working environment which culminated in the contraction of very serious lung illnesses by thousands of their current and former employees.

The mining sector

Every year major stakeholders gather at the Mining Indaba to discuss plans to increase investment, drive sustainability and transform the sector so it can support South Africa’s economic recovery and bring even more business into the country.

However, when testing the stated sustainability goals of said mining companies against their actions, a very different picture emerges.

Anglo American, for example, prides itself on a social policy which determines its role in supporting ethical mining. This means prioritising human rights and safety through identifying and managing social and human rights impacts, and risks related to labour, security, communities, health and the environment.

However, the emergence of the coal class action against it evidences that the company has failed to uphold the very policy punted to attract investors and points towards a cynical propensity toward safety avoidance where it suits the investors, and the production output at each of its operations.

Speaking at the Mining Indaba, Anglo American CEO Duncan Wanblad made promises on how to “deliver value” from all his operations. Before fulfilling that value-laden promise, perhaps the global company needs to account for the thousands of miners at its coal operations who are struggling to breathe and live a normal life.

Seriti Resources, which is also named as a joint respondent in the class action, is shifting its business to sustainable energy. It is building the largest wind farm in South Africa to plug some of Eskom’s energy demands. The coal mining company said that while the transition may put coal miners’ jobs at risk, the new project will create as many as 800 jobs when it is completed in 2026.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cleaner energy future: Coal mining houses Exxaro and Seriti hope green is the new black

Before delivering new power solutions it should consider the coal mine workers it has left behind who are suffering from lung disease at the expense of its profits.

Ramaphosa told the Indaba that workers today can organise and that their rights are protected, adding mining companies have the legal responsibility to provide quality services and promote development in communities where they operate.

Sustainability in the mining sector therefore does not and should not only refer to the environmental and ecological impact, but should give greater consideration to human life.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Anglo American, coal producers to be slapped with class action over miners’ lung diseases

In the pursuit of justice through these class actions, it is evident that the words of policymakers and mining companies do not equate to viable change and transformation. For the afflicted and sick mine workers, these are merely “words” designed to deceive shareholders, mining communities and government.

They now have the opportunity to deliver on their promises when it comes to human rights.

The applicants believe the mining companies breached their legal duties by failing to implement statutorily mandated procedures and protections over decades of operation.

Some continue to evade their responsibility when it comes to supplying mine workers with high-quality masks, preferring to supply standard face masks instead of industrial-standard dust filters.

This is not an attempt to kick the coal industry while it’s down, but to drive transformation and change in a way that ensures that South Africa is building a strong foundation for a robust mining sector and that investors are not putting their money in a fragmented industry.

Coal, whether we like it or not, still has a long life in South Africa, and we need to ensure that negligence and errors in the past are not repeated again. DM

George Kahn is a director with Richard Spoor Inc Attorneys and has been practicing within class action litigation and health and safety law for more than a decade since joining RSI.

Chloe Hoffmann is an associate at Richard Spoor Incorporated.

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