Two days after Workers’ Day, South Africa’s biggest ever class action settlement was reached, offering compensation to mineworkers who contracted silicosis or tuberculosis on gold mines from 12 March 1965.
The agreement was reached between three legal teams who brought a class action suit against employers, represented by the Occupational Lung Disease (OLD) Working Group.
OLD represents African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony, Sibanye Stillwater and Pan African Resources.
“This is the first class action settlement of its kind in South Africa and a result of three years of extensive negotiations between the representative attorneys and the OLD Working Group,” according to the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), which represented thousands of worker, together with Richard Spoor Attorneys and Abrahams Kiewitz Inc.
“There was a real good faith attempt from both sides to find a solution that compensates as many mineworkers and the surviving dependants of silicotic mineworkers as possible,” according to LRC attorney Carina du Toit.
“The settlement is the product of commercial negotiation and compromise, but we believe this is a beneficial settlement for the mineworkers. We have consulted extensively with our clients and they are also convinced this is a good settlement.”
One of the applicants is Siporono Phahlam, aged 62, who suffers from silicosis. “We weren’t given masks and were sent in after they [the mining companies] would blast and blast, not even waiting 15 minutes. The doctors say I won’t get better, and all I want is to have my voice heard. I don’t want future miners to suffer like I do,” said Phahlam in an affidavit collected by Spoor Attorneys.
Workers who contracted silicosis stand to get R70,000 (early stage) to R500,000 (class four).
Compensation for TB covers workers who worked for at least two years on the mines and were diagnosed with TB within a year of working at least one shift underground.
Those with ‘historical TB” (no medical records) can get R10,000, while those with “first degree” TB may get R50,000. Dependents of mineworkers who died of TB could get R100,000.
Courage and determination
The agreement must still be approved by the Johannesburg High Court and this is expected within the next month.
Compensation will be administered by the Tshiamiso Trust, which will be established following court approval and will be responsible for the distribution of claims. The companies have agreed to contribute R1,4-billion to cover the first two years’ worth of claims.
The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Sonke Gender Justice, who joined the case as amici curiae (friends of the applicants) described the settlement as “ground-breaking”, particularly as it also provides for compensation to the families of deceased mineworkers.
“We recognise the courage and determination of the former mineworkers who were applicants and we remember those mineworkers who have passed away in the long struggle for justice,” said TAC and Sonke. “We also recognise the women and family members who shouldered the heavy burden of caring for mineworkers who returned home with silicosis.”
“We recognise that no compensation can make up for the loss of loved ones, or the loss of one’s health or ability to work. We also note that the amounts that former mineworkers or their surviving family members will be receiving are in no way sufficient compensation. However, we also recognise that insufficient as the settlement may be, it is more than people would have received under the existing compensation framework, and as such we welcome it.”
Incurable lung disease
Silicosis is an incurable, progressive lung disease caused by the inhalation of tiny silica (quartz) particles raised during mining. It causes inflammation of the lungs, chest pain, cough, fever and breathlessness. People with silicosis are three times more likely to get tuberculosis and are prone to heart attacks.
Meanwhile, TB flourishes in people who lack proper nutrition and can easily be transmitted in places where ventilation is poor, such as mines.
“In South Africa alone, TB rates within the mining workforce are estimated at 2,500-3,000 cases per 100,000 individuals. This incidence is 10 times the World Health Organisation (WHO) threshold for a health emergency, and is also nearly three times the incidence rate in the general population,” according to a World Bank report.
“This settlement marks the end of a long road for the LRC, starting in 2003 which led to the Blom/President Steyn Mine silicosis litigation,” said LRC National Director Janet Love. “The Blom/President Steyn Mine matter was the first case on silicosis in South Africa. It served as a test case to establish the liability of Anglo American SA as a parent company.”
A call centre will be set up to provide the public with information on making claims and to record claims.