Catholic Church in South Africa helps sick miners to bring class action against mining giant

The class action is against global mining company South32.

The class action is against global mining company South32.

Published Aug 17, 2023


The Catholic Bishops and the Richard Spoor attorneys are launching a class-action lawsuit against South African coal mining companies to help sick miners suffering from lung disease.

The class action is against global mining company South32 seeking legal remedies for sick miners and the families of workers who died due to coal mine dust lung disease (CMDLD) in the form of pneumoconiosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Filed by Richard Spoor in the High Court of South Africa, Gauteng Local Division, the application seeks recourse for current and former coal miners, as well as dependents of deceased workers who contracted the illness.

The application was initiated and facilitated by the Southern African Catholic Bishops under its Justice and Peace Commission. In 2014 and 2015, some of the coal mine workers in Mpumalanga and Limpopo approached the Church seeking assistance in their quest for justice against powerful mining companies.

Imitating Christ in the Gospel who was always close to the struggles of the voiceless, the Church decided to stand in solidarity with them and facilitated their access to legal assistance under Richard Spoors Attorneys.

“Very often ex-mine workers are no longer members of trade unions and therefore lack the means and capacity to seek legal recourse from large companies which are responsible for their lung diseases. The Church is always concerned about the well-being of people with whom we work and live. It is thus incumbent on the Church to give assistance where it can so that the rights of the vulnerable are respected and so that they can access compensation that is legally due to them. Many companies are amenable to settling such cases, but in some instances court action is necessary,” said Cardinal-elect Stephen Brislin, the Archbishop of Cape Town.

Cardinal-elect Stephen Brislin, the Archbishop of Cape Town.

Coal mine dust can cause miners to develop lung diseases including pneumoconiosis and COPD. Coal miners’ pneumoconiosis is a scarring or fibrosis of the lungs. COPD is a chronic lung disease that can be characterised by breathing difficulty and airflow limitations. Both pneumoconiosis and COPD caused by coal dust are wholly preventable diseases.

Despite knowing the risks to coal miners, members of the coal mining industry failed to provide their workers with adequate training, equipment, and a safe working environment, the litigation alleges.

As far back as 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued the seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum, subtitled “on Capital and Labor,” the Church has been close to the suffering of the working poor. Influenced by the Gospel, the encyclical, Rerum Novarum, listed the rights of the working poor that need to be defended in our society, including the right to safe working conditions.

In helping the coal miners to access legal remedies, the church continues its responsibility of defending the weakest in the society as well as the dignity of labour in the context of unbridled capitalism. Profits should not be prioritized at the expense of the dignity and health of the working poor.