Lack of options drives women miners to face discrimination underground

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BR Asanda 0309 Independent Newspapers Asanda Benya of the Wits University sociology department says mining unions have let women down by dismissing their concerns as soft issues. Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi

Dineo Faku

MORE women are opting to work in underground shafts, where they are often more educated than their male counterparts, because widespread unemployment has reduced the options available to women.

Working underground is not an ideal job for women, but the new phenomenon has developed in the past 10 years, especially in the platinum belt, says Asanda Benya, a Phd candidate in the sociology department at Wits University.

The majority of women underground employees are aged between 19 and 45 and often joined mines after completing high school. Some are qualified teachers, nursing assistants and social auxiliary workers who struggled to find jobs, Benya says.

“They work mainly as winch and cage operators, equipment helpers or pikininis in underground mines in the platinum belt,” she says.

Mandi Glad, the chief executive at Keaton Energy, says it is an indictment of the mining industry that it remains a male-dominated environment despite legislation designed to promote women to higher levels of business.

Glad says courage, perseverance and tenacity are the hallmarks of success. “I thrive on challenges and this is a tough operating space anywhere in the world but I am excited and enthusiastic to participate in this industry.

“There are few women in this industry and fewer still in leadership, I regard it as privilege to have been entrusted with my role as chief executive.”

About 34 percent of undergraduate students at Wits University’s School of Mining Engineering are women, according to the school’s 2014 annual report.

Benya says: “Although we are pleased with the progress made in attracting black female students to mining engineering, we feel that the most total absence of white students disadvantages the development of black students in life skills related to working and living in a multiracial society.”

Benya says labour unions including the National Union of Mineworkers are guilty of not representing women adequately.

The union has let women down by dismissing women’s concerns, including maternity leave and sexual harassment, as soft issues or “women’s issues”. She also questions why labour unions do not have women in influential positions like general secretaries.

Benya attributes this to South Africa’s mining culture that has remained masculine over the past century. This was evident in the strike in August 2012 at Lonmin’s Marikana mine where women were excluded since they worked as equipment helpers.

“Women are treated as second-class citizens in the mining industry and the resistance they face from employers, and colleagues is blatant.”

For example, underground worksuits and toilets make it difficult for women to relieve themselves, Benya says.

“Wearing a two-piece suit rather than a one piece worksuit is safe for women. Women have to take off everything including the hard hat, which is a security hazard.

“The mines want women there [in mines] but what does a woman do when she is menstruating?”

She says nothing has changed in the mining sector and mining communities after the strike in August 2012, in which 34 people were shot to death by police shootout.

On the living conditions of the women, she says employees continue to live in shacks with holes.

While conducting her research, Benya worked and lived with platinum miners. When she questioned a woman miner about life in a shack, “she said that when it rains she has to stand the whole night. They have no water, no electricity, terrible roads that have prevented emergency vehicles from entering the informal settlements.”

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