The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has welcomed the re-opening of the economy but raised serious concerns regarding the safety and welfare of workers as South Africa moves to level 3 of the national lockdown. The Union repeats its call for universal testing of workers following the shock announcement of 164 new Covid-19 infections over the weekend. AMCU demands that employers must ensure the safety of their workers and pay their salaries as we enter level 3 of the national lockdown.
On 24 May 2020, Honourable State President Cyril Ramaphosa officially confirmed that the Covid-19 coronavirus national lockdown regulations would relax to level 3 as of 1 June 2020. Some of the relaxations announced focus on re-opening several sectors of the economy to 100% of capacity, including mining, manufacturing and related industries.
“As AMCU, we welcome the announcement that more industries can re-open and that workers can go back to work”, said AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa. “It is a fact that many workers are facing economic hardship as a result of the national lockdown, and it is important that they are enabled to return to work so that they can look after their families and their loved ones”, Mathunjwa said.
AMCU has consistently supported the re-opening of industry, but on the firm condition that workplaces must be made safe and that there should be national minimum standards in place to protect workers and communities. When the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) attempted to avoid the setting of minimum standards, AMCU took it to court and they were ordered to issue national minimum standards for the mining and energy sector by 18 May 2020. These standards, in the form of a national Code of Practice (COP) in terms of section 9 of the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA), were duly gazetted on 18 May 2020 and are now in force and compulsory for all employers in the sector.
“Even though the DMRE did not include all of our proposals and those of the academic experts we enlisted to advise them, we feel that the court ruling was a victory for workers”, said Mathunjwa. “As least we could play a part in putting in place something that was not there before”, he added.
One of the items on which the Minerals Council and DMRE did not want to budge during the talks, was the issue of testing. While AMCU has consistently called for the testing of all workers, the official stance of government and employers has been to only test workers who fail the screening process. Even though AMCU warned that screening alone would have significant shortcomings, especially when workers do not present symptoms, there was no appetite to change the current approach by employers.
On 17 May 2020, when AMCU became aware of 19 new infections at Impala’s Marula mine in Limpopo, the Union made a clarion call for universal testing at mines. AMCU appealed to employers to refrain from saving the costs of testing all employees, estimated to cost between R800 and R1 000 per employee. This was followed up by a letter to all employers in the country, at the approximately 300 mining and non-mining companies where AMCU is recognised, pleading with them to ensure the sustainability of their operations by testing all workers, especially those who are already on duty. In the letter, AMCU warned employers that a failure to do so may result in an explosion of infections in high-risk working environments like those in mining and manufacturing.
Unfortunately, AMCU’s warning seems to have been true, as the latest reports include a total of 164 workers found to be infected at Anglo Gold Ashanti’s Mponeng operations on the West Rand. Most concerning of all, is the fact that most of these workers were asymptomatic and therefore passed the screening process.
“As AMCU we are very concerned about these comrades and their health and safety”, said Mathunjwa. “We wish them a full and speedy recovery”, he added. “Just imagine how many co-workers they have been in contact with, and how many family members and loved ones in their communities have now been infected”, Mathunjwa said.
In its letter to employers, AMCU made the argument that, while it is known that the Covid-19 coronavirus takes up to five (5) days to incubate, it is also found that individuals can remain asymptomatic for up to fourteen (14) days. It is specifically such asymptomatic persons who pose the greatest danger, especially in the high-risk working places of mining and related environments.
“Even though we welcome the announcement by the honourable State President, there are some questions that beg answers”, he said. “Are the companies ready? Can the guarantee the safety of workers? Are the provinces ready? Are public health facilities ready?”, he asked. “We simply don’t know, and we believe the worst is yet to come”, he added.
“It is also important to focus on the livelihoods of workers”, said Mathunjwa. “It is unfair to blame workers for the fact that they are unable to go to work. Many employers have merely passed their financial troubles on to their workers by penalising them for not reporting for duty, even while they know that they cannot do so due to the national lockdown”, he added.
Last week AMCU wrote to the Minister of Employment and Labour, Honourable Thulas Nxesi, to enquire about certain failures to pay out money in terms of the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) via the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). The Union also reported certain companies found to have committed fraud by using UIF monies to subsidise their wage bills.
“Employers must do their utmost to soften the blow of this difficult period on their employees, and not hide behind the lockdown”, said Mathunjwa. “The ball is now in their court. They must use the measures put in place by our government to ensure that workers are able to put food on the table. As we move to level 3, employers must ensure that all workers are paid”, he said. “We remain available to engage with employers to explore options in this regard”, Mathunjwa concluded.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has come out calling for universal testing of all mineworkers following the rapid spread of the virus in the mining sector. The Union is adamant that this is the only way to curb a possible crisis in the sector.
Over the past weekend it came to light that a record number of 19 new infections have been found at Impala’s Marula mine in Limpopo. This brings the total number of infections in mining to 32, with one (1) mineworker who has died of the pandemic as at 17 May 2020.
“We have consistently called for proper testing before mineworkers go underground,” said AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa. “Screening is not sufficient as it fails to detect those workers who don’t display the known symptoms like high temperature. We’ve been saying this all along, but the DMRE [Department of Mineral Resources] and the Chamber of Mines [now known as the Minerals Council] would not listen to us,” Mathunjwa added.
On 1 May 2020, AMCU won the case against the DMRE who failed to issue proper national minimum standards to mines for managing the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of section 9 of the Mine Health and Safety Act. Judge Van Niekerk from the Labour Court also ordered the DMRE and all employers to implement a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) until 18 May 2020, by which time the national Code of Practice (COP) must be finalised and gazetted.
“Already during the court process and negotiating of the SOP, we came forward calling for testing of all mineworkers, but the other parties did not even want to consider random testing,” said Mathunjwa. “They would not listen to the opinions of five medical experts enlisted by AMCU,” he said.
AMCU’s court papers included the expert opinions of five medical experts who assisted AMCU with its application, namely Professors Rodney Ehrlich (UCT), Jill Murray (Wits), Rajen Naidoo (UKZN), Pam Sonnenberg (University College London), and David Rees (National Institute of Health).
One of AMCU’s main concerns was that it would be futile to only test workers who fail screening, as this would mean that they would have to display symptoms first. It is common knowledge that some cases of Covid-19 are asymptomatic, and recent studies have actually shown that these cases are more prevalent than previously thought.
“We said all along that AMCU is not opposed to the mines opening, but that we only want to ensure the safety of workers first,” said Mathunjwa. “What is the use of prematurely opening your mine only to be forced to close it down when there is an explosion of infection?” he asked. “We now demand that each and every worker must be tested for Covid-19 before he or she is allowed to go underground,” said Mathunjwa. “All those workers who are already back at work, must be tested immediately before they go back to work. This will be the true test of whether these companies put profit before people,” Mathunjwa.
“We must not cut corners now,” said Mathunjwa. “The only way to ensure the safety of mineworkers as well as the sustainability of the industry, is to upscale to universal testing. All mineworkers must be tested, and this must happen as soon as possible. If we fail to do this, we will face a crisis of epic proportions,” Mathunjwa concluded.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is elated after receiving a positive outcome from the Labour Court this morning. This follows an application to compel the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) to set minimum standards for health and safety during the scourge of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, following a due process of consultation with AMCU and other stakeholders. Part of the court order is that interim relief is granted, in the form of a national Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) which is binding on all mines in South Africa. The interim SOP is based on the recommendations of prominent health experts. AMCU says it will monitor compliance with the minimum standards.
This morning, AMCU received a court order from the Labour Court which sets aside the decision of the DMRE not to issue a proper national standard to mines for managing the the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of section 9 of the Mine Health and Safety Act. This can only be done after consulting with all stakeholders, including but not limited to AMCU’s medical experts. This must happen before 18 May 2020.
Furthermore, the Labour Court ordered that, in the interim and until 18 May 2020, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is made binding on all mines. This SOP contains specific minimum standards that all mines must adhere to, when managing the Covid-19 pandemic as employees return to work following the national lockdown. This SOP is informed by the five medical experts who assisted AMCU with its application, namely Professors Rodney Ehrlich (UCT), Jill Murray (Wits), Rajen Naidoo (UKZN), Pam Sonnenberg (University College London), and David Rees (National Institute of Health).
AMCU was represented by Adv Alan Dodson (SC), Adv Michael Bishop with instructing attorneys from Richard Spoor Incorporated.
“As AMCU we are truly elated by this victory of workers,” said AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa, “and to receive such good news on May Day, is a great privilege”, he added. “It is regrettable that the DMRE ignored our letters and constructive proposals, which led to us having no other choice than to approach the Labour Court. At least now, the lives and livelihoods of mineworkers can be protected,” Mathunjwa said.
While AMCU has consistently declared its support for the mines ramping up production, it maintained the view that a return to work can only happen once national minimum standards are in place. Before approaching court, AMCU wrote numerous letters to the DMRE, pleading with the Minister to set health and safety standards for mineworkers, who are uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19, including issues such as low levels of natural ventilation, as well as pre-existing conditions such as silicosis and tuberculosis. The DMRE ignored these letters and therefore AMCU was forced to approach the court.
“Today we can truly celebrate May Day, as a day on which the most basic rights of workers have been enhanced,” said Mathunjwa. “Even if we had to use many resources, the end result is truly a massive victory that will undoubtedly save lives of mineworkers, their families as well as the communities”, he said.
The interim SOP in itself is a substantial improvement on the regulations and directives issued earlier. The overriding difference is that the document is now a binding standard. For the first time in history, there is a compulsion on mines to train mineworkers on how to use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
There are specific provisions regarding the quality of face masks to be issued, as well as social distancing in underground working places. The issue of hygiene also receives broad attention, with provision for hand sanitiser not only at entrances, but also at exits. It obliges employers to clean and sanitise surfaces, and screening is now required on a daily basis.
The SOP also includes provision for the sterilisation of reusable PPE, communication with and reporting to local health authorities, as well as the appointment of a health professional to oversee the implementation of the SOP itself.
“This SOP will really assist us in the meantime while we engage on the national process to be completed by 18 May 2020,” said Mathunjwa. “Our biggest fear was about mineworkers in congested areas like cages and underground conveyancing, and this was also addressed by the SOP. We will now monitor the compliance of mines with these standards, and as AMCU we will support a responsible return to work, once we are satisfied that the mines comply,” Mathunjwa concluded.