Briefing of the NCOP by Minister of Mineral Resources, Honourable Ms Susan Shabangu Workers Day Debate
3 May 2012
Honourable Mahlangu, the Chairperson of the NCOP,
Honourable Memela, the Deputy Chairperson of the NCOP,
Honourable Adams, the Chairperson of the Select Committee,
All the Honourable Members of the NCOP, Good afternoon
We gather here, proud and thankful for the sacrifices and struggles of the working class, to mark a very special day.
It is a day that evokes the memorable thoughts of Karl Marx who called on workers of the world to unite for they only had their chains to lose. Celebrations marking the first of May -which are held universally on what some people call Labour Day lead one to think of the billions of people on this planet who, day in and day out, work to keep the wheels of industry, mining, agriculture, the trades and other avenues of working life going.
This is also a moment to reflect on the inequalities and exploitation which, in various theatres of the world, still grossly prejudice working people in their daily lives, and serve further to impoverish the poor especially.
To mark this day, we acknowledge that those who celebrated it in the past were committed to achieving a better world, with decent jobs, less onerous hours of work and improved wages. We salute them.
They managed, in historic campaigns and protests, to reduce what once was a ten or twelve hour working day, to eight hours or even less, giving workers adequate chance to improve their quality of life with families and loved ones, and to indulge their natural hunger for learning, knowledge and teaching.
They managed to do all this while pushing up rates of production, and gaining, for all working people, increased status and meaning in society.
In short, they kept the world going and helped to change it for the better. Yet this planet is now host to no fewer than seven billion people so the scale of problems ahead are obvious.
It is a cause for celebration that since the first democratic elections in 1994 in South Africa, Worker’s Day has been celebrated on the first of May every year. The public holiday enjoyed with families and friends provides a respite from the battles that our workers, in common with workers in other parts of the world, have waged for their rights and for social justice.
Yet this day is also a reminder of the many challenges that still confronts working people and the poor in South Africa and which remain obstacles to sustainable human development.
The South African working class has been at the forefront of the struggles for a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous and united nation. They have grasped the point that workplace struggles cannot be separated from broader social struggles that economic justice and equality cannot be achieved without national liberation.
In the year of the 18th anniversary of our political breakthrough and the 30th anniversary of the historic 1973 Durban strikes, we pay tribute to the millions of workers who fought for a truly democratic South Africa. We salute the many who sacrificed so much so that all South Africans could enjoy rights of citizenship in their own country.
This day also falls close to the commemoration of the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, which was on Saturday 28 April 2012 a day when millions of people around the globe worked collaboratively to promote the prevention of occupational incidents and diseases.
Championed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the day aims to raise awareness of occupational safety and health and the magnitude of work-related injuries, diseases and fatalities worldwide.
It is also a day on which the world’s trade union movement holds its International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers to honour the memory of victims of occupational incidents and diseases.
These are not statistics. They are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who were entrusted to industries, as healthy individuals. Their loved ones could fully expect to welcome them home, home-free of disease and injury - let alone their suffering death when doing an honest day’s work.
About a hundred years ago Sol Plaatjie, the first Secretary General of the African National Congress, describing the lives of mine employees said “Two hundred thousand subterranean heroes who, by day and by night, for a mere pittance, lay down their lives to the familiar ‘fall of rock’ and who, at deep levels, ranging from 1000 to 3000 feet in the bowels of the earth, sacrifice their lungs to the rock dust which develops miners’ phthisis (silicosis) and pneumonia.”
It is highly astounding that, since Plaatjie’s observation, close to 75 000 mine employees have since then died and more than a million were seriously injured as a result of accidents in the mining sector. It is estimated that many more lost their lives as a result of Tuberculosis, Silicosis and other poor health conditions at the mines.
The mining industry has for decades been the backbone of our economy and a major provider of employment in South Africa. But the benefits of these contributions to development have always been shadowed by the industry’s poor health and safety record.
Employees in the mines have endured harsh working conditions, including crowded living single sex hostels, poor health and safety measures and separation from their family members. The migrant labour system was once called a cancer, which indeed it was.
Even today this sector’s commitment to the health and safety of workers and communities affected by mining is still questionable. This must change. Death, injury and disease must be rooted out of mining.
You will recall that in the period before 1994, the mining industry used to report no less than 500 fatalities per annum due to occupational related injuries, however there has been a downward trend since 1994.
With a tinge of optimism, but also deep regret, Honourable Members, I can report that during 2011 a total of 123 mine workers were reported dead as compared to 127 in 2010, which translate to about 3% improvement on the actual numbers of mine workers that died year on year.
The breakdown of the above-mentioned 123 mine deaths per commodity reported in 2011 is as follows: gold (51), platinum (37), coal (12) and other mines (23). Other mines include, diamonds, chrome, copper, iron ore, etc. The major gold and platinum mines are the main contributors of accidents and loss of life. This is regrettable as it is expected that these mines should have the appropriate measures and expertise to enhance health and safety.
In 2012 so far we have lost 39 lives in the South African mining industry compared to 42 in 2011. The number of mine injuries has reduced by 35% from 1024 in 2011 to 668 in 2012.
Fall-of-ground accidents still remain the largest accident category and the predominant cause of fatalities followed by transportation and machinery accidents.
However, there are more deaths in the industry as a result of occupational health diseases than occupational injuries. The recent silicosis constitutional court judgment on the case between the late Mr Mankayi and AngloGold Ashanti and the litigations in the United Kingdom against Anglo American, highlights the importance of having effective control measures to deal with occupational health hazards at mines.
The health impacts are only visible long after exposure, hence the tendency not to be given the immediate attention they deserve. Silica dust exposure is the main concern as it leads to Silicosis, which further predisposes miners to Tuberculosis (TB). TB has thus remained a challenge in the mining industry and HIV/AIDS has increased the incidence of TB substantially. Lastly, Noise exposure is still leading to Noise Induced Hearing Loss, which is also quite debilitating as it results in permanent disability and incapacitation.
Although there has been an improvement on the number of fatalities, my Department is still greatly concerned with the continued loss of life at our mines.
The Department is responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Mine Health and Safety Act to ensure the achievement of the objective of Zero Harm. Extraction of the mineral wealth of our country should be done without killing, maiming or causing any occupational ill health and diseases.
Hence, the Department has adopted a principled approach of stopping unsafe working areas or mines in terms of Section 54 of the Mine Health and Safety Act to ensure that employers take appropriate measures that will prevent harm to mine employees.
There has been a significant improvement on health and safety since the Department has intensified the enforcement measures at the mines. In fact, the month of April 2012 has recorded the lowest fatalities ever of 3 deaths, when compared with other historical monthly figures which were generally more than 11 deaths per month.
The health and safety in the mining industry can also improve significantly and in a sustainable manner if all CEOs of mining companies would display more visible leadership at the mines. This will also go a long way in demonstrating the value of caring for mine employees, which they always talk about. The CEOs are urged to be more involved and visible within their respective mining operations including when there is a fatal accident.
There is also a need to ensure that accidents and occupational diseases are reduced through adoption of advanced technology, available leading practices and immense research that have been done and is still on-going through the Mine Health and Safety Council and other agencies locally and internationally.
Employers have to ensure that leading practices are adopted by all the mines. Some mines have been investigating for far too long on this matter and yet there is proof that adoption has led to significant improvement at other operations.
In the late nineteenth century, since the birth of modern mining industry, single sex hostels have been a significant feature of the system of labour on the mines. The housing and living conditions for many workers in the mining industry were of substandard nature, adversely impacting on their health, productivity and social wellbeing.
The hostels system for black mine workers were run on racial and ethnic lines. Migrant labourers on the other side have been affected by these conditions to a greater extent as they were denied a normal family life. They were subjected to poor living conditions in single-sex hostels resulting in social disruptions. This has also contributed largely to the spread and provenance of HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis in South Africa.
Government and stakeholders have acknowledged that the development of acceptable and sustainable housing and living conditions for mine workers can be realised through private sector involvement in upgrading of hostels to decent single accommodation apartments and conversion of hostels to family housing as part of improving the housing and living conditions of mine workers in terms of the reviewed Mining Charter.
A two-day Summit was held in November 2011 to review the state of health and safety within the mining sector. During the Summit the Government, unions and business made commitments which will also address silicosis, noise induced hearing loss, TB, HIV, AIDS and the general health of employees.
The Department in collaboration with the Departments of Health, Labour, organised labour, employers and other relevant stakeholders will, through the Mine Health and Safety Council, monitor the situation to ensure that the Summit commitments and action plans are implemented.
There is also a need to ensure that mine workers have the knowledge and skills to exercise their rights to withdraw or refuse to work under dangerous unhealthy, risky and hazardous environment.
We very often compare numbers of fatalities, draw trend lines and do regression analysis etc., on the health and safety data this is important However it does not speak to the pain and suffering that has to be endured by the relatives of those deceased miners. In a country where a better life has been promised to all we cannot continue robbing families of their loved ones, children of their fathers and mothers, and friends of their colleagues. The repercussions go well beyond the mine boundaries. The socioeconomic impact is immense and it affects the poorest of the poor within our borders and neighbouring countries.
We have made it our business to see that all stakeholders ensure that more attention is paid to the health and safety of mine workers. They are the individuals who still continue to make huge sacrifices working under hostile conditions to make a living and to contribute so handsomely to the profits of the mining companies and the country’s economy.
The extraction of the mineral wealth of our country should be done without killing, maiming or causing any occupational ill health and diseases.
The Department is committed and determined to collaborate with our social partners to ensure that all employees go home to their families safely.
In conclusion, the mining industry must strive for Zero Harm. Every mine worker must exit the industry in the same state of health, as when they joined. We must do everything to advance our national effort to make health and safety a business imperative in our mining industry.
Issued by: Department of Mineral Resources
3 May 2012
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