Check-up Af­ter the silicosis vic­tory, new mines are tar­geted

Work­ers tell of bat­tle to get doc­u­ments in bid for com­pen­sa­tion

Sunday Times - - Business Times - By LUTHO MTONGANA mton­[email protected]­day­

● For 58-year-old Mam­pondo Mfunda, who lives in Lusik­isiki in the East­ern Cape, it has been three years since he was di­ag­nosed with silicosis.

Mfunda be­gan work as a gold-mine worker in 1980. He worked for var­i­ous mines for 35 years un­til 2015 when he was told he could not con­tinue be­cause of silicosis.

Silicosis can be con­tracted from in­hal­ing dust con­tain­ing fine crys­talline sil­ica, which is toxic and can lead to bron­chi­tis and lung cancer.

“I cough all the time now. I can’t run or walk fast any­more, and I also can’t walk up­hill roads, nar­row down­hill roads or carry a five-litre bucket for a long time with­out feel­ing a burn in my chest,” Mfunda said.

He con­tracted TB in 2010. He was treated and went back to the mine where he con­tin­ued un­til his last day of work five years later.

Since then his health has de­te­ri­o­rated and his body grows weaker by the day.

Mfunda is among 100 000 men and women who have worked on gold mines, some since 1965, and who suf­fer from silicosis or tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. They now stand to re­ceive com­pen­sa­tion.

In a case that could have dragged on for more than 20 years had it gone to court, a set­tle­ment was reached on Thurs­day when six gold-min­ing com­pa­nies signed an out of court agree­ment of R5-bil­lion with lawyers rep­re­sent­ing mine work­ers who had con­tracted silicosis and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis while work­ing un­der­ground.

A while ago Mfunda was told by neigh­bours that he should put to­gether his doc­u­ments to claim com­pen­sa­tion, but he had not heard any­thing since.

He had not gone to the fa­cil­ity in Mthatha for mine work­ers to sub­mit their doc­u­ments, he said, but he hoped he was in the sys­tem some­where and that he would be com­pen­sated along with the oth­ers.

He is just one of many peo­ple in the ru­ral area of Lusik­isiki af­fected by the ill­nesses, ac­cord­ing to Al­bert Mvu­mile Simkana, also a for­mer gold-mine worker who stopped work­ing be­fore he be­came in­fected.

Simkana said he had friends who had been for­mer col­leagues who had also been in­fected. He needed to find a way to track down the lawyers who could help put to­gether doc­u­ments so that they could also be com­pen­sated, he said.

“The com­mu­nity has been talk­ing about it [the silicosis case] for a long time and won­der­ing when they will get com­pen­sated. Things are fi­nally mov­ing ahead for them be­fore even more peo­ple die,” Simkana said.

Richard Spoor is one of the lawyers who is rep­re­sent­ing work­ers in the silicosis case. His firm had had its eyes on coal-min­ing com­pa­nies, among them Sa­sol, Exxaro, South32 and An­glo Amer­i­can Coal, with re­gard to two types of oc­cu­pa­tional dis­eases con­tracted by coalmine work­ers.

The two types of dis­ease for­mer em­ploy­ees have are coal work­ers’ pneu­mo­co­nio­sis, which is sim­i­lar to silicosis and is also known as black-lung dis­ease, and chronic ob­struc­tive pul­monary dis­ease. Some work­ers had a com­bi­na­tion of the dis­eases, while oth­ers had just one.

Spoor said he had been screen­ing the coal-mine work­ers for ei­ther of the dis­eases. The firm was run­ning a test case at Sa­sol Coal on be­half of 22 in­di­vid­u­als and would screen about 200 work­ers at Tshikon­deni in Lim­popo. “We are mov­ing from com­mu­nity to com­mu­nity to find for­mer mine work­ers,” Spoor said.

Be­cause his firm would be look­ing at coal-mine work­ers on a com­pany-by-com­pany ba­sis rather than through a class ac­tion, the next step would be to in­sti­tute a case against Sa­sol next year.

“We in­tend to is­sue more ac­tions for claims to dam­ages be­tween now and next year against other coal com­pa­nies. The sug­ges­tions are that they will be open to some kind of set­tle­ment but you can’t just walk in and do that; there has to be re­search, file the claims, etc oth­er­wise you’re play­ing games,” Spoor said.

Oc­cu­pa­tional dis­eases did not re­ceive much in­ter­est from lawyers be­cause of the te­dious work and re­search that went into it, he said. But his firm would con­tinue look­ing into oc­cu­pa­tional dis­eases.

“Long term, one of the most glar­ing is in­duced hear­ing loss.

“There are tens of thou­sands of mine work­ers and in­dus­trial work­ers as well those who are not get­ting a fair deal. So long term we are look­ing at those,” Spoor said.

Ra­di­a­tion ill­nesses

Sipho Shongwe, a for­mer gold-mine worker who lives on the East Rand, has been can­vass­ing other for­mer mine work­ers in the area to bring a case on ra­di­a­tion-re­lated ill­nesses that some of the for­mer work­ers have claimed to suf­fer from.

Spoor said the big prob­lem with ra­di­a­tion ill­nesses was that the vast ma­jor­ity of oc­cu­pa­tional can­cers were not be­ing di­ag­nosed as oc­cu­pa­tional dis­eases. Ra­di­a­tion ill­nesses in­clude soft-tis­sue cancer and leukaemia.

“We have seen a lot of can­cers com­ing out of the petro­chem­i­cals in­dus­tries and these peo­ple are not be­ing com­pen­sated, or dealt with fairly, but these peo­ple are en­ti­tled to ben­e­fit in the [Com­pen­sa­tion for Oc­cu­pa­tional In­juries and Dis­eases] Act and they should be get­ting com­pen­sa­tion,” Spoor said.

Em­ploy­ers did not recog­nise that these dis­eases were oc­cu­pa­tional dis­eases and the com­pen­sa­tion com­mis­sioner did not recog­nise them ei­ther, so they were fall­ing be­tween the cracks.

Shongwe, who is pur­su­ing his ra­di­a­tion case, said it had been chal­leng­ing but the silicosis set­tle­ment had given him hope.

“It’s just a mat­ter of keep­ing on dig­ging and dig­ging un­til I find some­one who wants to help us,” Shongwe said.

Money from the silicosis case will be in a fund for 12 years for work­ers to claim.

I cough all the time now. I can’t run or walk fast any­more with­out feel­ing a burn in my chest

Pic­ture: AFP

Health Min­is­ter Aaron Mot­soaledi, cen­tre, dur­ing a $390-mil­lion (R5-bil­lion) set­tle­ment signed be­tween work­ers af­fected by silicosis and min­ing com­pa­nies.

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