SA Mining Sector faces heavy criticism for TB crisis

Posted by ARASA on August 5, 2010


 Cape Town, 7 June 2010 –

At the South African TB Conference that took
place in Durban from 1-4 June, the gold mining sector came under heavy
criticism from clinicians, ex-miners, advocacy groups and the Minister
of Health. Gavin Churchyard, a leading TB clinician and researcher,
described TB in South African mines as an “unprecedented public health
Churchyard was speaking at a session organised by the Chamber of Mines
on TB in the mining sector, along with representatives from the
National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the AIDS and Rights Alliance
for Southern Africa (ARASA). ARASA produced a report on TB in the
mining sector in 2008, and has since lobbied government and the mining
sector to take action on the recommendations outlined in the report.
A study released on June 1 by Oxford University showed that
increased levels of mining production correspond with higher rates of
TB in the general population, and suggested that the mining sector
could be responsible for more than 700,000 cases of incident TB in
sub-Saharan Africa every year.

Although representatives from various mining companies, also
speaking at the session, declared that the sector had undergone
transformation in the past few years and presented various
interventions to attest to this, Paula Akugizibwe
from ARASA stressed that the mining sector, which she referred to as a
“TB factory”, was over a century behind schedule with regards to its TB
Akugizibwe quoted the Milner report of 1903, which warned that “the
extent to which miners’ pthisis [TB] prevails at the present time is so
great that preventive measures are an urgent necessity”, and emphasised
that while the progress observed in the past few years is welcome, a
much more drastic effort would be required to stem the public health
and human rights crisis that has resulted from decades of neglect.

Gold miners are at increased risk of TB due to high levels of
silica dust produced in the gold mining process, as well as the high
HIV prevalence in mining communities.  In 2003 the mining sector
launched an initiative to eliminate silicosis and developed targets for
silica dust reduction – however, as pointed out by Churchyard, the
elimination of silicosis would require dust levels to be at least 50%
lower than the targets that have been set by the sector.

The Department of Health estimates that TB rates in the mines are
between 3,000 and 7,000 per 100,000 every year – in other words, they
could be up to ten times the national incidence rate. This poses a
grave health threat not only within the mines themselves, but for
labour-sending communities throughout the region – Minister of Health
Aaron Motsoaledi, in his plenary speech, expressed his concern that the
mining industry is “exporting TB and HIV” to neighbouring countries
from which migrant labourers come.

Speaking at a press conference with the Treatment Action Campaign
and Medecins Sans Frontieres, Cebisamadoda Nxumalo from the Swaziland
Ex-Miners Cooperative Union added that many miners are sent back home
without any referral note from the company, which can result in
interruptions to their treatment and thus put them at risk of drug

The allegation of mines exporting TB/HIV was further demonstrated
by the emotionally charged personal testimony that was shared by a
former mine worker from Lesotho at the close of the Chamber of Mines
session. After contracting TB in 2007, he was subsequently dismissed
and has since had to make several taxing and costly trips between
Maseru and Johannesburg in his efforts to secure the compensation to
which he is legally entitled, but is yet to receive.

The compensation system for mine workers is rife with
challenges – not least the parallel legislation that has been developed
specifically for mine workers, the provisions of which are inferior to
those granted to all other workers in South Africa. The process of
assessing compensation claims is slow and extremely bureaucratic; and a
2005 audit by Deloitte found that the compensation fund is insolvent
and that mining companies’ levies would need to be substantially
increasedin order to cover the deficit. Over the 21 month period during
which the audit was conducted, only 400 of the 28,000 claims submitted
were paid out.

Currently, the burden of responsibility for this shortfall is being
shifted between different government departments and the miningsector,
and disagreements between the Chamber of Mines and the Department of
Health regarding who should be held responsible for correcting the
compensation fund’s deficit – which will affect the calculation of
levies that the companies are required to pay – have resulted in a
court case that will be heard later this year.

However, Mr. Eric Gclilitshana, the NUM’s National Secretary for
Health and Safety who attended the Chamber of Mines session, warned
that the union will not support litigation against the mining houses,
because experience has shown that “litigation does not benefit the
ex-mine worker, as all the funds go to the lawyer’s fees”.

Lynette Mabote from ARASA expressed concern about this statement,
which she said shows that “former mineworkers, whose labour built our
economy, have been left to the mercy of a system that was historically
designed to maximise exploitation and impunity.”

Lynette Mabote, Advocacy Co-ordinator, ARASA, Tel: +27 83 642 0817