The Catholic Church believes that in the suffering of the poor working class, we encounter the suffering face of Christ. This has led us to work alongside the law firm Richard Spoor to bring a class action against coal mining giants South32, BHP Billiton and Seriti Power, to seek a legal remedy for sick mine workers and the families of workers who died of coal mine dust lung disease and associated illnesses.
As far back as 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued a document called Rerum novarum that outlined the rights of the working poor, the church has consistently defended the right of workers to safe working conditions. It continues to do this through the current class action. This class action is about the restoration of dignity to the working poor which has been cumulatively disfigured through decades of unsafe working conditions.
The mining industry in South Africa and the rest of Africa has accumulated a significant amount of wealth for the continent, but some have done so on the back of a system that violates the right to safe working conditions for miners. Adverse human rights impacts were especially a reality in the mines that have been operational since the dark days of apartheid.
In the context of business and human rights law, an “adverse human rights impact” occurs when an action removes or reduces the ability of an individual to enjoy his or her human rights. This includes the “removal” of the enjoyment of the right to health. For decades, mines have tried to shift the responsibility of the human rights impacts to the state, but now is the time to reverse this externalisation and broaden the corporate responsibility in addressing human rights harms linked to the legacy of apartheid-era mining.
Former coal mine workers involved in the class action spent a large part of their lives working underground, digging up the wealth that helped to grow and boost South Africa’s economy. Over the years, their hard labour boosted South Africa’s economy and helped it grow — and helped mining company shareholders — but miners have reaped scant rewards for their work.
Many of these mine workers are entering their sixties and have been out of work for about a decade. Indeed, what should have been a peaceful retirement has become a desperate time. Their health is compromised and they are not financially stable enough to treat their diseases.
A number of the miners we spoke to in preparation of the class action, lamented about their inability to breathe or sleep with ease. Their wheezing coughs and chest pains become apparent when we speak to them, and they often struggle to climb stairs or walk uphill without losing their breath. We heard the accounts of dependants of deceased mine workers who helplessly watched their father or husband’s health deteriorate.
The women in the household have had to bear the burden of taking care of a very sickly husband and father, robbing them of their own opportunities to find work. Homes and families suffered financially. As is evident, the poor regulation of the industry has had a sustained ripple effect on thousands of families.
For some, the existence of thousands of coal miners with lung diseases is simply a public health crisis and a legal crisis. For us, it is also a symptom of a deeper crisis in society, an ethical and spiritual crisis. It is an indictment of the systemic removal of ethical and spiritual values from the economic sphere, values like dignity, compassion, equitable sharing of wealth, accountability and transparency. In the context of the class action that mine workers have launched against coal miners, we are therefore calling on the coal mines to consider their corporate ethical responsibility, and not solely legal and financial responsibility to shareholders.
Mining and human development
Miners also spoke to us about the systemic disconnect between mining and integral human development.
The cases of sick miners should challenge us to interrogate the meaning of human development and the extent to which the mining sector is contributing to such development. The value and strength of the mining industry should be measured, not solely in terms of the extent to which it contributes to the country’s gross domestic product and earnings for shareholders, but also the extent to which it is open to repair the adverse harm that it has cumulatively caused in the lives of the working poor and the host communities.
In the context of a wellbeing economy, human development is not solely about economic growth, but also about the quality of human life, including rest, dignity of work, compassion, sharing of wealth, solidarity and respect for the dignity of others. In the Catholic Church, we call this “integral human development”.
Integral human development is the holistic development of the human person, covering all aspects of life: social, economic, political, cultural, personal and spiritual. Mining in rural areas cannot be called “integral human development” when in the 30-year lifespan of the mine, it has extracted massive wealth from a particular rural area in Africa for the benefit of a small elite, be it shareholders or politicians, leaving the rural poor with unrehabilitated mines, black lung disease and extreme poverty.
If mining is to fit into the framework of the wellbeing economy and integral human development, it should evolve into an economy that serves the human person and the planet, and not the other way around.
Our hope as the church is that the coal mines cited in the class action will emulate the example provided by the gold mining companies involved in the silicosis case who, in consideration of their corporate ethical citizenship, find it in their heart to explore a settlement agreement, and not protract the litigation to 10 or more years while the hundreds of sick miners die before receiving reparation.
It does not hurt a corporate brand when a corporation rises to the occasion and apologises for its human rights harms. It does not make a corporation less effective in achieving its strategic growth targets if it decides to repair the human rights harms suffered by its workers. That is what integral human development and a wellbeing economy are all about. That is what corporate ethical citizenship is all about. We hope to see it in this lifetime. DM