Johannesburg (AFP) – Thousands of miners in South Africa affected by silicosis from exposure to dust reached a breakthrough settlement worth $390 million with several mining companies on Thursday, their lawyers said.
The settlement will cover those who worked for the mining giants between March 1965 and the present day and will reportedly benefit more than 100,000 former mine workers or their dependents.
Many of those affected were poor migrant labourers originally from countries neighbouring South Africa including Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique.
South Africa’s mines, which have attracted workers from across the region in the 130 years following the discovery of the world’s largest gold deposits, remain some of the world’s deepest and most dangerous.
“This is an historic settlement, resulting from years of extensive negotiations,” said a statement issued jointly by the miners’ representatives and the affected companies.
“The agreement provides meaningful compensation to all eligible workers” who worked for African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye-Stillwater, it added.
It is the first class action settlement of its kind in South Africa and follows three years of negotiations.
Many miners caught silicosis, which has no known cure, while drilling through rock and inhaling silica dust that lodged in their lungs and caused permanent scarring.
Symptoms include persistent coughing and shortness of breath, and the disease regularly leads to tuberculosis and death.
The agreement must now be approved by the South Guateng High Court in Johannesburg.
– ‘The best we could achieve’ –
“The purpose was to hold the gold mining industry accountable for the enormous harm that it has inflicted on workers for years. The second objective was to bring a measure of redress for the families of miners and ex-miners,” said lawyer Richard Spoor who headed the class action on behalf of the miners.
“It is the best we could achieve. We have not compromised. We have done the best we could possibly achieve.”
Graham Briggs, who represents the Occupational Lung Disease Working Group which acted on behalf of six of the mining companies, said “a settlement is certainly preferable for several parties because it brings payment sooner than any class action”.
“A settlement is preferable because it brings certainty,” he added.
The joint statement said that six companies last year made financial provisions worth a total of 5 billion rand ($390 million) to cover the claims.
Anglo American has set aside the most for the payments with a provision for $101 million (84 million euros), followed by Sibanye which has earmarked $82 million, according to Bloomberg News.
Spoor said that claimants could expect payments to begin in September or October which he said might be “disappointing for those who have waited so long”.
“In the last five years, out of 35,000 clients that my firm has represented, approximately 5,000 have died. It puts tremendous pressure to settle,” he said.
In cases where the original claimants have died, health minister Aaron Motsoaledi vowed that “the widows will be paid (but) it is not going to be very easy to find them”.
Some studies have found silicosis prevalence in South African gold mines at between 22 and 36 percent of all workers — among the highest rates in the world.
In 2011, the Constitutional Court paved the way for the class action by ruling that mineworkers who had often accepted paltry compensation for their ill-health could still sue.
Activists warned of the huge challenge of organising the claims and dispensing the compensation.
“This is a good starting point, but they need to include actual miners and ex-miners in the trustees board so we can contribute to the rollout,” said Rantso Mantsi, a former miner from Lesotho.
“There are many people who died before being compensated, hopefully their families will now be paid out.”