The move towards automation of the mining industry is moving full speed ahead, with negative implications for mine workers and their families.
The people most at risk of this disruption are migrant mine workers who have always been integral to mining operations worldwide.
Rio Tinto has ushered in the future of mining using driverless trucks in Gudai-Darri, Australia.
These trucks are controlled approximately 1 200km away from the mining site by a supervisory system.
The mining on the African continent is also hurtling towards full-scale automation.
For example, in Mali, the Syama gold mine is fully automated with connected network controls that manage all mining activities such as loading, extraction hauling, blast systems, and drilling from control centres above the ground.
In South Africa, the South Deep Gold mine uses virtual reality fibre technology.
This technology uses fibre networks from the mine that connect to a control centre above ground with screens.
These screens showcase what is occurring within the mine in real time. Workers can operate machines remotely without ever stepping into the mine.
What does all this technological innovation mean for mine workers?
We should expect the labour component to contract as employers prefer machines to labour for several reasons.
These reasons include the machinery’s ability to operate around the clock without fatigue, bathroom breaks, illness, and no lost time during handovers.
In Australia, driverless trucks can be operated for a full day’s worth of work and are estimated to save 500 work hours annually. Mali, the Syama mine, has examples of machines working 22 hours daily.
This begs the question: how should we protect mine workers at risk of job loss?
In South Africa, stakeholders within the mining industry have been grappling with this question, and figure out solutions. Still, the situation is further complicated by low-skilled migration.
According to a 2020 report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), gold and platinum mines employ 45000 migrant workers who have worked in these mines for decades.
Compared to local workers, some low-skilled migrant workers are more vulnerable to technological advancements due to their tenuous residency status.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) are three of the largest unions within the South African mining industry.
These unions have been vocal about issues such as the re-skilling of mine workers and the threat of retrenchments. However, often left out of the conversation is how low-skilled migrant workers will be upskilled and protected from potential retrenchments.
Migrant workers often lack access to collective bargaining representation and are not unionised, further exacerbating their vulnerability to new technologies. Trade unions should play a role in championing all worker’s rights and interests - including migrants.
Various government and civil society initiatives have been implemented to educate and upskill mine workers. One way to upskill mine workers is through partnerships like Sibanye-Stillwater’s Digi Mine strategy, which joined forces with the Wits Mining institute to launch a mining laboratory.
This initiative assists graduates in acquiring the skills needed to operate advanced technologies within the mining industry. This type of initiative primarily benefits local workers.
It sidesteps low-skilled migrant workers who often come from backgrounds with poor education and little access to resources to further their training.
While advanced technology ushers the mining industry into the future, it also threatens the livelihood of mine workers- especially low-skilled migrant mine workers.
Any government program implemented by South Africa to upskill or create a relief package for retrenched mine workers will likely exclude foreigners, many of whom have dedicated most of their lives to contributing to the success story of the South African mining industry.
Their countries of origin are usually in economic crisis and unlikely to roll out job loss packages for displaced migrants. Thus, who is looking out for migrants?
There is an urgent need for action from mining companies, governments, and civil society organisations to come together and create programs that support retaining and upskilling migrant workers from technological disruptions.
James Maisiri, is a Non-Resident Research Fellow, Digital Africa Research Unit at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg, and PhD Candidate, UJ.