Ruling favours ill miners
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SUPPORT from large British and American legal firms will be enlisted to help tens of thousands of former miners and their families sue South African mining companies for failing to adequately compensate them for occupational lung diseases.
This comes after the landmark Constitutional Court judgment ruling in favour of former miner Thembekile Mankayi, who had been paid little more than R16 000 after he contracted chronic lung disease while working for AngloGold Ashanti, Africa’s biggest gold producer.
Mankayi died last Friday, five days before the Constitutional Court ruled that he had a right to sue the mining company for loss of earnings, pain and suffering, and medical costs arising from his mining-related illness.
The Concourt judgment overrides an earlier ruling by the Johannesburg High Court that miners who had already been compensated in terms of the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act, could not sue their former employers for further damages.
Human rights attorney Richard Spoor, who had represented Mankayi in a bid to claim R2.6 million damages, said the Concourt judgment opened the door to claims from as many as 280 000 afflicted miners and their families in South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho.
Spoor said legal action on behalf of these former miners and their families was now being planned.
Representatives of AngloGold Ashanti could not be contacted for comment on planned legal action, but in a radio interview on Moneyweb on Friday, spokesman Alan Fine said the judgment had removed “one pillar of any defence” mining companies could use in future.
He said AngloGold acknowledged that the Mankayi case had highlighted “a number of occupational health challenges that the industry faces”, including working to improve the management of dust underground to prevent lung diseases.
Mankayi was to be buried at his home near Mthatha today.
Spoor said that although the ruling had come too late for Mankayi, it was good news for all miners suffering chronic lung diseases.
He said the ruling would give rise to better working conditions and better compensation schemes for miners who contracted illnesses from working underground.
“The current statutory compensation scheme is woefully inadequate. Workers receive less than 20 percent of what they’re entitled to.”
Spoor said chronic lung disease was rife in deep-level gold mining because of ineffective ventilation. “Appropriate ventilation is very expensive and in South Africa miners are working 4km underground. Internationally the deepest they go is several hundred metres.”
He said there was no deep-level gold mining elsewhere in the world, “because to do it safely is too expensive”.
“But in South Africa it has been cheaper for workers to get sick and die than it is to provide adequate ventilation.
“That is the economics of deep-level gold mining in this country.”
Spoor said deep-level gold mining had also been very profitable in South Africa because mining companies hadn’t had to compensate people who got sick and died.
The Concourt judgment meant that mining companies would now have to provide proper ventilation, but might find this too costly. “This maybe the death knell of deep-level mining,” said Spoor.
He said there had been little funding available for the Mankayi case.
“But now that we have a judgment, we are lining up funding for a group action. This will involve co-operation with British and American law firms big enough to handle this kind of case,” said Spoor. – [email protected]