SarWatch Writer
Mining Workers’ Health Must be Prioritise before Profit

World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2021
28 April 2021

The COVID-19 global health crisis has exposed the lack of preparedness for disaster management by many sectors across the globe. In the mining sector, the COVID-19 outbreak has shown that the sector’s response to health emergencies is inadequate and needs improvements. This is concerning because mining is associated with serious occupational hazards and illnesses that arise from long-term exposure to dust, noise and pollution, putting mineworkers in the bracket of populations that are most vulnerable to COVID-19 infections. World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2021 focuses on strategies to strengthen national occupational safety and health systems to build resilience that will enable industries to face present and future crises.

This comes as a recently published review in Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine journal titled “COVID-19: a new burden of respiratory disease among South African miners?” shows that mineworkers experience multiple burdens of respiratory diseases due to their distinct work condition in one of the most dangerous industries. The high prevalence of Silicosis, Tuberculosis (TB) and HIV among mineworkers in South Africa makes them susceptible to COVID-19 infections. Silicosis, TB and HIV are likely to increase transmission, severity, and post-infection impacts of the COVID-19. This review confirms our long-held view that the pandemic has introduced new complexities to the disease burden among mineworkers.

The legacy issues of gold mining in the SADC region has affected the health of approximately 500 000 ex-gold miners from Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana. These people contracted silicosis and TB while they were working in South African gold mines. An estimated one-third of TB infections in the Southern African region are linked to mining activities, either underground or open-cast mining. Mineworkers, including migrant workers who become sick in South African mines are sent back home without a proper health referral system and any compensation.

Whilst most of the focus has been on mineworkers employed by mining corporates, Artisanal and Small-Scale mineworkers (ASMers), who are without union representation are getting the short end of the stick. SADC governments have an obligation towards the wellbeing and safety of all their citizens. One way SADC governments can protect ASMers is by ensuring that the sub-sector, which is an important contributor to the SADC region economic growth, is formalised. This will enable ASMers to benefit from training on mining safety standards and have access to adequate protective gears and information.

Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW) has been working with the Justice for Miners Campaign (JFM) to assist ex-gold-miners affected by TB and silicosis and their dependents to access compensation due to them. Beyond compensation, the campaign advocates for increased social protection measures for migrant mineworkers during the COVID-19 recovery phase, especially in their living conditions. The JFM also campaigns for legal reforms to introduce preventive mechanisms in mining operations that will reduce the level of infection among mineworkers, and ensure the immediate care and support that needs to be provided as miners become sick. We, therefore, call on the mining sector to head the call of the International Labour Organization which calls for urgent investment in resilient occupational safety and health systems.