Bench Marks Foundation slams partial reopening of mines

by John Capel, executive director of Bench Marks Foundation

Bench Marks Foundation is increasingly worried that Mineral Resources and Energy Minister along with the mining industry, have entered into some kind of agreement whereby mines will become 50 percent operational. What implications does this have around the novel coronavirus Covid-19 disease and its spread?

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call for a lockdown is to prevent further infections, especially on those that are poor and vulnerable. Mine workers must be one of the most vulnerable groups in the country.

Vulnerable because of their poor over crowded working and living conditions.  Mine workers recently won compensation for silicosis, a lung infection leading to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Now it seems they will not be spared the deadly disease of the new coronavirus and carry it back into communities. This is a respiratory disease and has the potential to affect thousands of mine workers and the nearby communities. They are the most vulnerable.

Many active mine workers are not supplied with adequate health protection; travel down for kilometers inside the earth to extract the minerals in overcrowded lifts, to work in cramped teams in very hot conditions.

Only in the evening to enter out into the cold weather, to go and live in their tin shacks in informal communities, living on top of one another. They lack access to water and electricity and proper disposal of sewage.

This is a recipe for disaster and can only have one outcome- the rampant spread of Covid-19, not only amongst mine workers, but amongst mining communities. Due to the nature of migrant labour on the mines these workers will have to travel back from the Eastern Cape, Mozambique, Lesotho and will act as carriers of Covid, pretty much how the HIV/Aids pandemic spread.

Is it possible to have physical distancing, proper protective clothing, full facial masks, well the Bench Marks Foundation thinks not?

What we foresee is the wide spread infection in areas like the North West and Limpopo, areas with little medical facilities, weak provincial and local governments and many people being infected. This could up the infection rate tens of thousands of people and the government will not be able to cope with this.

Instead we would have expected a better response from the industry, like opening their clinics to community members and ramping up medical expertise in their areas. Extending their social responsibility to surrounding communities. This would have said a lot about the industry’s social responsibility.

Instead, the industry pays lip service to this. We have one of the greatest threats to human existence, and the mining industry response is to look the other way. This tells us a lot about the industry.

Lives don’t matter, only production even if the world is burning. This is like US President Donald Trump’s actions of getting the economy moving without listening to the scientists.

We are told, take the pain now instead of paying later with more pain and suffering. Stop the disease in its tracks. But the industry is bucking this trend. Why? Is it because black lives don’t matter?

We can understand that certain essential services are needed in the industry, to ensure maintenance to sustain the future of the industry.

Why is De Beers an essential service, and how does platinum fit in, especially given the oversupply on world markets and the scaling down of demand of these minerals globally, as the world economy grounds to a halt?

Rustenburg is already the epicenter of the virus in the North West Province and the industry’s response will spur this on.  We can understand the need for coal to keep the lights on.

We can only arrive at one conclusion and that is the mining industry does not care. It’s all about returns on profit.

Then we must ask why all this talk on stakeholder capitalism, whereby all stakeholders must be incorporated into the strategic goals of corporations. The reason being, is that this is just a ruse to seem to be doing good.

This is backed up by the Bench Marks Foundations research, its Policy Gap series of studies, that tell us this is one of the worst sectors when it comes to social responsibility.

The industry actions speak louder than words, and this action to ramp up production again, tells the truth about mining.

It talks of social responsibility, but not with requisite action. Most of these companies are signatories to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP).

Whereby states are to protect human rights, corporations respect human rights and there must be access to remedy for human rights violations.

We challenge Anglo American companies, Impala Platinum and Sibanye-Stillwater to do the right thing and contribute to abating the spread of Covid-19. Adhere to UNGP. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy should protect the human rights of workers and mining communities, with industry respecting the human rights of both.

The industry can spread this disease far and wide and this action of having 50 percent of workers back at work can only lead to an unimaginable spread of the disease.

Originally published Apr 17, 2020 on IOL