Silicosis Case: SA mining industry goes on trial

South Africa’s mining industry is going on trial today, May 1, for its historical treatment of black workers.

As workers in South Africa and around the globe gather to commemorate Workers Day, a day inextricably linked to the historical treatment of black mineworkers, a two day hearing linked to the latter theme was set to commence in London’s High Court. The hearing is to decide whether gold miners who worked for Anglo American South Africa can pursue their silicosis compensation claims in England.

The hearing represents just one chapter of a bigger course by former mineworkers to have justice. The London chapter is part of a broader case also pursued within South African courts. And there is another action pursued by human rights lawyer Richard Spoor in partnership with US based plaintiffs’ law firm, Motley Rice LLC against the broader gold mining industry. In the latter action, the targets include Harmony Gold, Avgold, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Village Main Reef, Simmer and Jack Mines, DRDGold, ERPM, Anglo American South Africa, African Rainbow Minerals, Randgold and Exploration Company and JCI.

In the chapter unfolding today, about 2500 former gold miners are pursuing class action against Anglo on claims that they contracted silicosis and silicotuberculosis in the line of duty. Their case has been pushed over the past nine years by a consortium of actors. These include the Legal Resources Centre, Garratt Mbuyisa Neale attorneys, Leigh Day and Legal Aid South Africa.

Anglo American is challenging the validity of these claims. The corporation has said that “does not believe that it is any way liable for the silicosis claims brought by former gold workers and is defending the actions”.

A statement released by London based law firm Leigh Day yesterday the claims were instituted in September 2011 in the UK where the courts have well developed procedures for handling mass claims and the levels of damages are likely to be substantially higher than in South Africa.

The statement said the claimants are ex-miners from impoverished labour-sending areas of the Eastern Cape and Lesotho and from the Free State. “They allege they contracted silicosis and silicotuberculosis from excessive dust on Anglo mines. They claim that Anglo American South Africa negligently controlled and advised the mines within the Anglo group with respect to dust control and silicosis”.

The statement added that Anglo American South Africa was the head office company of the Anglo group until 1998 but is now owned by London-based mining giant, Anglo American plc.

“Under European law the courts have jurisdiction over defendants that are domiciled in the European Union. A company may be domiciled where it has its central administration. The Claimants argue that Anglo American South Africa is domiciled in England because it has its “central administration” in London where the head office company Anglo American plc is now based”

Explaining silicosis, the Leigh Day statement said the disease is caused by excessive dust exposure and increases the risk of contracting TB, which is endemic in rural South Africa. “The combination of silicosis and TB is often fatal. Rates of silicosis and TB are very high among black gold miners, who undertook the dustiest jobs in the mines. Exact numbers of victims are unknown but tens of thousands are likely to have been affected”.

Added the statement “A study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2008 found a 25% prevalence of silicosis in ex-miners from Lesotho who had been employed long term miners on AASA’s President Steyn mine”.

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