AMCU heads to court over 'unlawful' return to mining operations

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The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Workers of South Africa (AMCU) has delayed its urgent legal challenge against the government's decision to allow mining companies to operate during the lockdown period.

The matter against the department of mineral resources and energy was expected to be heard on Tuesday, but the union has resolved to remove the matter from the urgent court roll,  stating that the case will  be "argued later during the normal course".

In a statement on Tuesday, the union said the matter had "become less urgent" following the amended regulations announced last week by government to allow companies to run at 50% capacity, and gradually increase capacity at a rate to be determined by the department.

Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe had indicated that a return to operations might be expected by the middle of May.

In the meantime, companies were required to adhere to strict health and safety regulations, aimed at limiting the spread of the virus. 

The union was expected to argue that making workers to return to work without specific considerations for the mining occupation and the that resuming work would put employees at risk of contracting the coronavirus. 

"Nobody want more for life to resume as normal, but it cannot be at the expense of life," the union said in its notice of motion.

Companies such as Impala Platinum have told workers to prepare for a gradual return to work, in a process the company said would be subject to health screening. The company said the call to return to work was "specifically aimed at ensuring a safe and orderly return to work after the provision of the lockdown are lifted".

"Enabling a gradual return to work, subject to specific precautionary measures...will go a long way in ensuring a safe and orderly start-up," said spokesperson Alice Lourens.

Other companies have made similar promises. DRDGOLD CEO Niël Pretorius said the company would only continue operations on condition that it ensures health and safety of staff, Fin24 previously reported. "We took guidance on what such measures entailed from the guidelines published by the DMRE, the Department of Health and the Minerals Council South Africa," he said. 

But AMCU is not convinced by either the government's regulations or mining companies' assurances.

"AMCU cannot allow its members to report for duty in circumstances where it has not been privy to any framework or ramp-up plans, and cannot be assured that its members are safe," it said.

The court papers, which list the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs and the Director-General in the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy as as other respondents, further argue that the consequences of the amendments to the lockdown regulations could result in the "unnecessary rapid spread of the virus...and deaths of thousands of people".

In its notice of motion, AMCU cites the normally congested cages that take workers underground as a typical example of conditions that do not allow for adequate physical distancing guidelines, as well as confined work spaces underground.

"The decision is unreasonable and unconstitutional," the notice argues.

Speaking to Fin24, AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa said mining bosses had ignored the union's call for a formation of a Covid-19 task team, which would be tasked with developing with measures protect the employees. 

"We are against the knee-jerk approach adopted by government to address the Covid-19 pandemic on the mining industry," he said, adding that those who had been called back to work must heed the call. He insisted, however, that workers had a right to refuse to work under dangerous conditions.

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