Class action secures payout for S Africa goldminers over fatal diseases

Seven firms to compensate thousands who contracted silicosis or occupational tuberculosis

Former gold miner Thulani Bitsha,  who contracted silicosis while working underground,  in the doorway to his home near Bizana in South Africa’s impoverished Eastern Cape province, when interviewed in March  2012. Photograph: Mike Hutchings/File Photo

Former gold miner Thulani Bitsha, who contracted silicosis while working underground, in the doorway to his home near Bizana in South Africa’s impoverished Eastern Cape province, when interviewed in March 2012. Photograph: Mike Hutchings/File Photo

 

South Africa’s largest ever class action lawsuit concluded on Thursday when lawyers representing miners who contracted deadly lung diseases while working for gold producers reached a settlement with the companies.

The seven gold producers involved have agreed to financially compensate thousands of miners who contracted silicosis or occupational tuberculosis due to inhaling silica-laden dust when working underground to extract the precious metal.

While the total number of miners that will be compensated remains unclear, those who can show they fell ill while working for the gold producers will be eligible to receive up to 500,000 rand (€33,000) each in compensation.

South African gold miners work a rockface in an undated image from c.1998. File photograph: Reuters
South African gold miners work a rockface in an undated image from c.1998. File photograph: Reuters

In cases where successful applicants to the compensation scheme die before they receive a payout, their dependants will benefit instead.

Over the past 12 months the gold producers have established a 5 billion rand (€330 million) trust for the purposes of handling the various aspects of the compensation process.

The Tshiamiso Trust will comprise three members nominated by the mining companies, two by the claimants’ lawyers, one by the government, and one by both the companies and the miners’ representatives.

The members of the trust will be responsible for locating, verifying and assessing former miners with silicosis and occupational tuberculosis, a task that is expected to take years. Once an individual’s claim is confirmed, the trust will issue the compensation payment.

Following the signing of the settlement in a Johannesburg hotel, the parties involved said the agreement was a good one for all sides.

“For mineworkers, this settlement provides an opportunity to receive a medical examination and much needed compensation for those suffering from silicosis and/or tuberculosis, without the need to pursue extended litigation and the risks inherent with that approach,” they said.

Former gold miner Senzele Silewise, who was diagnosed with silicosis, talks to paralegals in Bizana in South Africa’s impoverished Eastern Cape province in March 2012. File photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters
Former gold miner Senzele Silewise, who was diagnosed with silicosis, talks to paralegals in Bizana in South Africa’s impoverished Eastern Cape province in March 2012. File photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

‘Huge step’

“For the companies in the working group, this represents a huge step towards their previously stated goal of a comprehensive solution to issues relating to compensation for occupational lung disease in the gold mining industry in SA that is both fair to past, present and future gold mining employees, and also sustainable for the sector,” the statement continued.

The agreement between the claimants’ lawyers and the mining companies’ occupational lung disease working group is the first class action settlement of its kind in South Africa. It involves miners who worked at specific mines from 1965 until now.

The settlement must still be ratified by South Africa’s courts, and therefore its implementation is not expected to begin before the third quarter of this year.

The mining companies involved in the lawsuit are African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, Sibanye-Stillwater and Pan African Resources.

Lawyers involved in the settlement have indicated they will now go on to seek compensation for miners who have contracted deadly diseases while working for coal mining companies in South Africa.