Life vs profit: One mine death is a death too many

Fatalities and injuries in the mining industry haunt an arrogant sector that asks for mercy when mine workers are injured and dying.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is deeply saddened and shocked at the deaths of 22 mine workers at Sibanye-Stillwater’s local operations since January this year. This is a calamity.

Mine workers are being sacrificed for profits and nothing else.

They risk their lives deep below the surface of the earth and they get paid poverty wages.

There was a near miss when about 1 000 workers were trapped underground as a result of a power failure in February at Beatrix mine in Welkom. This is a mine owned by Sibanye-Stillwater.

The NUM is of the view that one death in the industry is one death too many and production should not and must not be at the expense of mine workers’ lives.

There is a safety crisis in the mining industry in South Africa. The increase in fatality rates clearly shows there are no significant efforts that have been made to improve the safety of SA mines.

A lot remains to be done in order to create a much-needed preventive safety and health culture in every single mine, and for SA to attain a zero-death and zero-harm standing.

South Africa will only attain a zero-death and zero-harm standing if mining companies admit there is a safety crisis in the industry; they must also stop being arrogant and in denial.

The sector’s performance on health and safety is atrocious and it also does not bring us closer to the zero-harm/death aspiration.

The world watched with bated breath in 2010 as 33 miners in Chile were rescued, having survived 69 days underground after the collapse of the San José mine.

Now the subject of a major Hollywood film, the Chilean government successfully spun what should have been a story about mine safety failure into a gripping and heart-warming rescue drama.

But three workers, two women and a man trapped underground at Lily mine in South Africa received less international attention after getting trapped following a collapse on February 5 2016.

Yvonne Mnisi and two of her colleagues, Pretty Mabuza and Solomon Nyarenda were in a mobile office that plunged 80m into a sinkhole when the road outside the entrance to the mine collapsed.

The three mine workers’ remains must be retrieved so their families can find closure.

The Chilean government put up resources to rescue the mineworkers in 2010, but the mining industry and government in SA could not save the three mineworkers. The Lily mine disaster truly shows that there is a safety crisis.

Recently, NUM members at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Kloof mine were charged and dismissed after they observed a day of mourning for their colleagues who died in the line of duty. This occurred in the first quarter of 2018. The employees were charged for being absent from work without approval, but the situation was resolved and all of them are still employed.

The NUM will vigorously pursue days of mourning, whether Sibanye-Stillwater likes it or not.

This is the arrogant attitude that Sibanye-Stillwater displays to our members. They care about profits and that is why our members who observed a day of mourning were charged.

The mining companies’ inaction to deal with the health and safety crisis in their operations will not convince anyone.

One death is a death too many.

This is unacceptable as we don’t sell our lives, limbs or lungs to the industry but our labour to provide for our families.

The NUM reiterates its call that there is a need to amend the Mine Health and Safety Act No 29 of 1996 Section 86A 45, that those who are found to be responsible for fatalities in the mining industry are given harsher sentences or a lengthy imprisonment. Currently, the Mine Health and Safety Act No 29 of 1996 allows for criminal liability but the sentences are not harsh.

Any owner convicted of an offence in terms of Section 86 or 86A 45 may be sentenced to:

(a) Withdrawal or suspension of the permit; or

(b) A fine of R3 million or a period of imprisonment not exceeding five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.

The NUM strongly feels that the sentences are not harsh.

A fine of R3 million or a period of imprisonment not exceeding five years is nothing to the mining bosses who make billions in profits at the expense of poor mine workers.

Sibanye-Stillwater should face criminal liability for those 22 fatalities that happened in its operations if any negligence is found. 

Section 86A of the Mine Health and Safety Act does exist and it states that those who are found to be criminally liable must be dealt with in terms of the law, but we have not seen anyone found criminally liable.

What is the department of mineral resources (DMR) doing about this?

The Mine Health and Safety Act allows the DMR to lay criminal charges against those found to be responsible for fatalities. But the apparent inaction by the DMR is worrying, as mine workers continue to die in large numbers in the mining industry.

The NUM hopes that the DMR will one day exercise its power to lay criminal charges against those found to be responsible for fatalities.

Mining companies will continue to ask for mercy while the DMR – as the regulator – does nothing. The DMR is empowered by the Mine Health and Safety Act to impose harsher penalties.

Mining companies will never tighten their safety measures if harsher penalties are not taken against them. The reality of the situation is that workers are on their own.

Sibanye-Stillwater continues to say it is a leader in health and safety in the mining industry, but the 22 fatalities that happened this year at its operations make a mockery of such claims.

This company is extremely hostile to the NUM and it continues to make huge profits by focusing on retrenchments more than on health and safety.

Sibanye-Stillwater must work together with its employees, through the unions that represent them, if it wants to end the safety crisis at its operations in South Africa.

Chief executive Neal Froneman must stop being arrogant when confronted with issues that are happening in his company. The company must stop spending millions on lawyers; threatening those who speak out. It must spend millions on the health and safety crisis happening at its operations.

* Livhuwani Mammburu is NUM’s national spokesperson. Views expressed are his own.

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