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Mine workers are at high risk of contracting Covid-19 — their mass vaccination is essential


Luphert Chilwane is media officer for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Mine workers are vulnerable to the virus since, in most instances, they operate in deep-level, labour-intensive conditions that are crowded and enclosed. The growing number of Covid-19 infections requires urgent attention.

It is the employer’s responsibility to fight Covid-19 in workplaces; we can’t be praising the fish for swimming. As such, it is very encouraging to see the number of mine workers opting for vaccination against Covid-19.

It is even more encouraging to see them calling on everyone in their respective communities to do the same. Now that the vaccination roll-out has begun, we should be demanding detailed plans on how the government and mining companies will make good on the vaccination promises.

There are about 385 mines in South Africa employing about 506,220 workers. As of 15 June, 36,476 mining sector employees had tested positive for Covid-19 and 422 had died.

This is the time for all of us to pull together, especially for mining communities, mostly in semi-urban and remote rural areas. Workers across all sectors must be included in real decision-making on matters that affect their lives. The time for action is long overdue but we must act with haste, to save lives.

The increasing number of workers getting the jab is not only a progressive move, but a step in the right direction to reinforce individual responsibility between the private and public sectors. However, it must not have unintended consequences against the gains of bargaining powers and hard-fought worker’s rights.

Trade unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers made calls as early as 2020 for all mining stakeholders to try to prioritise workers for a vaccine as soon as one became available.

The union is on record as having reconfirmed its support for the country’s national vaccination programme and has urged all industry employees to get vaccinated as soon as they can.

Mine workers are seen as a vulnerable cohort in terms of contracting the virus since, in most instances, they operate in deep-level, labour-intensive conditions that are crowded and enclosed. The growing number of Covid-19 infections requires urgent attention.

Covid-19 should be declared an occupational disease so that workers can receive compensation when they fall ill or die from the disease.

It is the duty of all stakeholders to ensure that they continue to implement precautionary non-medical measures to prevent the escalating spread of the virus, such as screening and testing, physical distancing, wearing masks and sanitising hands.

Companies should also continue to adequately educate employees and communities about the danger of Covid-19, and how to prevent it.

The government has been initiating phases of the vaccination programme, specifically allocating R10-billion to buy and distribute the vaccine.

It is indeed encouraging to see reports that massive vaccination programmes for mine workers are being launched in the platinum mines of Limpopo, and that more than 100,000 mine workers have so far received their jab.

Importantly, however, every worker has the right to agree or refuse to be vaccinated and there should be no legislation that compels them. Those who choose not to must take preventive measures.

Stakeholders must take emergency action and work with haste to save the lives of mine workers and surrounding communities. We cannot start claiming a victory or praising the fish for swimming while the pot is still boiling on the stove. DM


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