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SarWatch Writer
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World Day for Safety and Health at Mines in the times of COVID-19

On this day of the celebration of World Day for Safety and Health at Work, the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW) is concerned about the impact that COVID-19 could have on mineworkers, their families and their communities. The International Labour Organization establishes the principle that workers must be protected from diseases in general, and from professional diseases and accidents resulting from their work.

Mining is one of the largest employers on the African continent. It also attracts large communities. The nature of work in the mines where people are called to work in teams and travel in groups in shafts predispose it to the spread of COVID-19. The virus has the potential to spread like wildfire in the working force. It will also not spare mining communities where the mineworkers come from. COVID-19 could cause serious harm in an already impoverished section of society.

SARW is also concerned that in the situation where the pandemic forces mines to adjust their budgets and secure their investment, the first people to suffer the consequences are workers who risk losing their jobs and their wages on which many other family members depend. It is predicted that because of COVID-19, more or less half a billion people will enter poverty and sub-Saharan Africa will become home to 44.6 million new poor people.

SARW is concerned about the risk of many mineworkers being laid off by mining companies in order to compensate for the loss of income caused by the virus. It is also likely that those workers who keep their jobs will be forced to work hard to make up for the vacuum left behind by those who lost their jobs. This situation of forced labour will expose workers to the virus and injuries which could cause the death of even more miners than usual. Mining companies’ tendency to try to make as much profit as possible at as little cost as possible must be challenged. Despite efforts put in place to create a safer, healthier work environment for miners, there are still significant dangers associated with working on a mine.
In these exceptional circumstances, when countries are battling to slow the spread of COVID-19, mining companies have the responsibility to ensure that workers’ safety and health are assured. For this SARW calls on mining companies to take the following steps to protect workers and mining communities:

  • educate the workforce and communicate regularly with employees;
  • strengthen good hygiene practices by providing running water at all times;
  • take related safety precautions and monitor the daily progression of the pandemic at the mine AND in mining communities;
  • actively encourage sick employees to stay at home and quarantine potentially exposed employees;
  • have non-essential employees working remotely;
  • accept that employees have the right to say no to work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions without prejudice.

While these measures are important, they do not protect the workers and communities that may be infected with COVID-19. Above all, SARW calls on mining companies to:

  • cover COVID-19 testing costs for workers and their families;
  • ensure that workers who may be quarantined or infected continue to receive their monthly wages;
  • commit to providing medical services for sick workers;
  • invest in health facilities, for example by opening up facilities used by managers to workers and local communities;
  • work with civil society in awareness campaigns to mobilise workers and local communities and enable them to protect themselves from the virus.

Mines remain dangerous places for workers. During this time of COVID-19, mining companies, besides the contribution they are making toward governments’ efforts to fight the virus, must also show their humanity toward the people (mineworkers and their communities) who produce the wealth that their shareholders enjoy.

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