R5bn aid a ‘good start’ for stricken gold miners
WHEN, IN THE EARLY 1980S, Dr Rhett Kahn started working for Harmony as a mine medical officer in the Free State town of Virginia he couldn’t believe how many young men lay in the mine’s hospital beds, stricken with TB.
“One year, there was a big retrenchment and they lined up the TB people (for retrenchment). Rhett wrote to the mine manager, complaining that this was unfair labour practice and they reinstated the whole lot,” remembers his wife, Janet.
“But when the next retrenchment came along, Rhett was retrenched even though he was the second-longest mine medical officer at Harmony… He was seen as too left-wing.”
For decades, Khan and his wife have treated thousands of ailing gold mine workers, many from neighbouring countries, suffering from silicosis – a progressive lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust in gold mines – and TB at their small Welkom clinic.
The couple welcome this week’s historic R5bn settlement from several mining firms to compensate sickly mineworkers as a “good start”.
“Look, it’s a compromise position as 5% of the people in the class-action lawsuit have already died while waiting for this settlement to come out. The lawyers can’t wait another 10 years because they will lose 40 percent of the workers.
“But my problem with the agreement is that it doesn’t cover emphysema and doesn’t cover treatment. The mines are supposed to pay for the treatment but they don’t.
“There is no treatment for silicosis, but there certainly is palliative treatment,” says Janet. “When someone needs home oxygen, that is exceptionally expensive. Asthma pumps can help relieve the tightness of chest. If you have silicosis, you are more prone to getting TB, and there are tablets that can help you prevent that.”
The Kahns, who worked with lawyer Richard Spoor since the early 2000s, say many mineworkers over the years asked them why the classaction lawsuit was taking so long.
“You try to explain how the courts are slow but it’s difficult. The R5bn the mines are paying is not enough for all the damage they have done to people.”
The couple worry about mineworkers in the early stages of silicosis, who can still work, but are unable to.
“Instead of the mines saying ‘let’s give you proper protection so more dust doesn’t get in your lungs and you can go back to your job or work on another mine, they are stopped from working. That’s a huge problem. They get their R63 000 compensation and then what? They take that little bit of money to the Eastern Cape, or they maybe become zama-zamas. What else can they do?”
Gold mining firms, they believe, are not doing enough to protect current gold mine workers.
“They don’t provide the right face masks and people tell us how soon they go back underground after blasting. Until the mines get the right kind of drills with lots of water to damp down the dust, there won’t be an improvement.
The Occupational Lung Disease working group, which settled in the matter, says mining companies have made significant progress in underground dust prevention over the years.
“But all parties believe that there should be continuing improvement in underground dust management techniques so as to ensure that silicosis and TB cease to be occupational health risks.”