Out of breath

Finweek English Edition - - COMPANIES & INVESTMENTS -

Ac­cord­ing to the lawyers who rep­re­sent the cases, the noose is slowly tight­en­ing around the prover­bial necks of min­ing com­pa­nies for al­legedly ex­pos­ing their em­ploy­ees, mostly un­der­ground min­ers, to the risks of var­i­ous lung dis­eases.

“The game is up for the gold min­ing in­dus­try,” says Richard Meeran, an at­tor­ney for UK firm, Leigh Day, which re­cently ap­peared the vic­tor af­ter An­glo Amer­i­can agreed to an outof-court set­tle­ment pay­ing the law firm’s cli- ents, some 23 min­ers suf­fer­ing sil­i­co­sis, an undis­closed fee in com­pen­sa­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to another lawyer, the in­de­pen­dent Richard Spoor, it suited An­glo to set­tle; it didn’t want its de­fence ex­posed while larger suits loom – and there are a num­ber.

A class ac­tion con­sist­ing of 3 500 for­mer min­ers claim­ing com­pen­sa­tion af­ter con­tract­ing sil­i­co­sis – a lung disease akin to tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and of­ten fatal – was lodged in the UK courts in Septem­ber 2011. (The mat­ter is now un­der ap­peal af­ter the au­thor­ity of UK ju­ris­dic­tion was suc­cess­fully chal­lenged.)

Spoor, mean­while, has 22 000 ap­pli­ca­tions from sil­i­co­sis suf­fer­ers in his class ac­tion. There’s also a fil­ing in the Pre­to­ria High Court for 60 in­di­vid­ual cases un­der­way, while in the Jo­han­nes­burg High Court another class ac­tion rep­re­sent­ing 31 cases of sil­i­co­sis suf­fer­ers, al­legedly con­tracted while work­ing at An­glo Amer­i­can’s Vaal Reefs (while An­glo had a gold and ura­nium di­vi­sion which sub­se­quently be­came An­gloGold), is be­ing filed.

Ac­cord­ing to the Le­gal Re­sources Cen­tre, which has also helped pi­o­neer re­dress against the health risks to which min­ing com­pa­nies ex­posed their work­ers, there’s a pool of some 280 000 peo­ple who worked on gold mines for longer than 10 years – the time al­lowed to con­tract sil­i­co­sis – in po­ten­tial suits. Ac­cord­ing to some stud­ies, sta­tis­tics show that 20% to 30% of all gold mine work­ers con­tract sil­i­co­sis.

Nail­ing min­ing com­pa­nies in this way is a bud­ding in­dus­try. A cor­po­rate source says: “The lawyers do pretty well out of this. Th­ese are not pro bono cases; the f irms ded­i­cate the lawyers full-time to chas­ing down th­ese cases over long pe­ri­ods of time [10 years, in the case of An­glo’s re­cent set­tle­ment].”

Spoor re­sponds that An­glo, and the cor­po­rate world in gen­eral, is more cyn­i­cal. “It suits An­glo to drag out th­ese cases,” he says. About a third of the 23

Min­ers are vul­ner­a­ble to a num­ber of res­pi­ra­tory dis­eases

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