Mining in the shadow of Covid-19

Implats mine workers are back on the job in Rustenburg, North West, but they are anxious about working while Covid-19 continues to spread in the country Picture: Tebogo Letsie
Implats mine workers are back on the job in Rustenburg, North West, but they are anxious about working while Covid-19 continues to spread in the country Picture: Tebogo Letsie

Mine workers returning to work say they are anxious about being infected or infecting others. Some say they had no choice but to go back as they feared losing their jobs

Dark-coloured facial masks, some ill-fitting and sagging below their noses, did little to conceal the dejection and gloom painted on the uncovered parts of the mine workers’ faces. In the foreground of a towering mine shaft, the miner workers emerged from underground.

Still clad in overalls, boots, helmets and knee caps, some of them waited for the mine buses to take them home after a long shift.

Others walked past the waiting area to hitchhike home.

They squeezed into a crammed private vehicle and drove off – in contravention of the Covid-19 coronavirus social distancing regulations, which only allow two people in small cars.

These workers at Implats in Rustenberg, North West, had just knocked off.

Most of them took a deep breath when asked how things had been since their return to work in the face of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic.

A common thread was that, if they had a choice, they would not have returned to work until it was totally safe to do so.

They were worried about being infected with the virus and anxious about the rising number of cases and related deaths.

Unease at work

None of the mine workers wanted to be named, for fear of victimisation.

The Covid-19 outbreak hit South Africa when there was already huge unemployment and slow economic growth, with the mining sector hardest hit.

The mine workers said they needed their jobs for survival and for their families’ livelihood. But they all maintained that they needed to stay alive even more.

“Before I was called back to work, I spent time watching and listening to news on how the virus cases were rapidly increasing in parts of the country.

I came here to secure my job, but the fear amid the risk that we’re exposed to is killing us inside because no one wants to die from anything

"Then, suddenly, I find myself back at work where I am going to be among people from all corners of the country. I might get infected or I might infect them if I am unknowingly carrying the virus,” said a visibly worried mine worker at Implats Shaft 20.

“Waking up in the morning is very hard. All I can think of is getting infected with the coronavirus at work … I mean, why are we working when people are being arrested and slapped with huge fines for not staying at home under the national lockdown?

“But, then again, I could not refuse returning to work when the message came through my phone ordering me to do so.

"If I stayed [at home], I would be making things easy for the employer to fire me or automatically put myself up as a retrenchment candidate … I came here to secure my job, but the fear amid the risk that we’re exposed to is killing us inside because no one wants to die from anything.”

Another mine worker said the only notable difference when he arrived back at work was that they were being screened for their temperatures before going into the mine, and they had to wear a mask at all times.

The masks were also worn by all the mine workers returning from work at the Sibanye-Stillwater mine in Rustenburg.

“But now, feel the texture of this mask,” said a mine worker. The one-layer cotton mask looked “thin”, he said, adding that mine workers were concerned the masks might not be enough to protect them against infection or from passing the virus on to others.

The man said he was going to buy his own cloth masks because he did not feel protected by the ones the mining company provided.

Mine workers say they fear for their safety.

“It is a punishable offence to be found not wearing this mask at work. But I doubt if the quality was something they were serious about when they procured these masks,” he said.

“I am gradually accepting that I am back at work. I am exposed to the virus and anything can happen … but there is nothing I can do about it because my family and myself need this job more than anything. I can only pray that I make it through this difficult time.

“If I do not work, I won’t get paid and I might lose my job. Without an income, things could get even tougher for my family during the lockdown. One thing that is clear is that profits are being put before the lives of workers by the employers.”

Precautionary measures

Mining companies had been pushing to restart operations when only processing plants and maintenance operations had been given the green light before the lockdown regulations were relaxed.

The companies welcome the resumption of mining operations, which will be at 50% capacity underground and at 100% in open-cast mines.

However, mining unions, workers and the public have objected, saying they are worried about the health and safety of those returning to work.

Unions and workers did not believe that mining companies would keep their promises to improve health and safety standards, nor that they would fully adhere to the Covid-19 regulations.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has maintained that, at 50% operating capacity, most of the mine workers would be back at work with the risk of infection hanging over their heads

Mining companies said they were fully committed to conducting rigorous screening of workers; had isolation and medical facilities ready; would ease up congestion in working areas; and maintain safe social distances.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) was last week in court, challenging the department of minerals and energy to set clear health and safety guidelines for mining companies to follow.

The union expressed concerns, saying it had seen how existing health and safety measures and guidelines had previously been flouted by mining companies, resulting in the loss of lives. The union said it wanted stricter guidelines.

The court hearing was adjourned to allow the parties to discuss a possible settlement. This will then be used as the basis for a judgment, which is expected soon.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has maintained that, at 50% operating capacity, most of the mine workers would be back at work with the risk of infection hanging over their heads.

Mine workers’ main concern is that the physical distancing regulations will be very difficult to implement and adhere to, especially in the underground working environment.

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