The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has written to the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) to focus on the safety of workers as mining houses are getting ready to ramp up to limited production. The Union accuses the DMRE of deviating from the national lockdown measures announced by the State President, as well as of lacking consultation with trade unions and other stakeholders. AMCU says it must ensure that the health and safety of all workers are guaranteed, before mines and other companies can relax the national lockdown measures.
Reacting to an SMS notice for an engagement between the DMRE and trade unions planned for tomorrow, AMCU pointed out that Honourable Minister Gwede Mantashe had not yet responded to its previous correspondence. In this (previous) correspondence, AMCU raised a variety of concerns, including specifically the way in which the DMRE was departing from the national lockdown measures as announced by the State President, Honourable Cyril Ramaphosa.
AMCU indicated that President Ramaphosa was very clear when he said only essential services would continue during the 21 days, indicating that that the DMRE instead took the opportunity to expand the essential services exemption to a variety of other mining activities. The Minister was also criticised for unilaterally drafting a document for public consumption, without prior consultation with AMCU and other stakeholders, as well as not honouring his undertaking to provide AMCU with a list of mining operations which will continue to be operational during the lockdown.
“As we know, no such list was provided by the DMRE, and neither has the DMRE fulfilled its regulatory role to make an assessment on damages suffered due to this practice”, said AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa.
In its letter to the Minister, AMCU says that the Minister’s invitation of all trade unions to a physical meeting in these times is highly irresponsible. Instead, AMCU proposes that this meeting be held via teleconference or other remote communication methods.
“It is hard to believe that the Minister would invite the top leadership of trade unions to a physical meeting in Pretoria during the national lockdown, when even government itself uses remote methods when they conduct press conference”, said Mathunjwa.
AMCU questions the genuineness of the proposed consultation scheduled for 7 April 2020, instead demanding that the Minister submits all the DMRE’s proposed plans in writing, so that the Union can make written submissions to these documents.
“We don’t understand why the DMRE could not take us into their confidence and provide us with their plans in writing, so that we can ensure that the process is fair,” Mathunjwa added. “The problem is that they [the DMRE] is highly reactive when it comes to these things. Already on 5 March 2020, AMCU called for a national Coronavirus Summit, but this gained no traction. Now everything must happen in haste, and workers are expected to return to work without the necessary safety precautions being in place”, Mathunjwa said.
AMCU says that it is becoming clear that the DMRE is under severe pressure from the Minerals Council to start with a premature ramp-up of operations under the guise of the essential services exemption. The Union bemoans recent negative consequences of the concessions made by the DMRE, including fatalities at coal and gold mines, as well as tensions at other operations like Kumba Iron Ore.
“We remain highly disappointed in the DMRE for its blatant flouting of the Covid-19 measures put in place by our State President. We are equally concerned about the job security of workers and the state of the South African economy at large. However, these concerns must never be addressed at the expense of the health and safety of workers. We have appealed to the DMRE not to succumb to the pressure of employers and thus flaunt the rights of the workers”, Mathunjwa explained.
“DMRE is between a rock and hard place,” said Mathunjwa. “On the one hand they are responsible for issuing mining licences, but on the other hand they are responsible for regulation which includes health and safety,” he added. “Under these circumstances, it clearly shows a conflict of interest. They cannot be player and referee at the same time”, Mathunjwa said.
News articles start stating that the economic pressures of the national lockdown might lead to mass retrenchments in the already embattled South African mining sector. This, since the recent investment downgrading of South Africa to sub-investment grade and the poor growth of the economy in the past decade.
“We don’t expect any job losses since job losses according to mine bosses are caused by protected strikes and, hence there are no strikes, we don’t expect them to start slashing jobs”, said Mathunjwa. “As AMCU, we will do everything in our power to ensure that the workers remain safe and healthy, and that their terms and conditions of employment remain unharmed during these trying times”, he added. “The silicosis experience we had in the past, should have been a learning curve for us”, Mathunjwa said.
AMCU requested the DMRE’s written proposals to reach it by close of business, today (6 April 2020). At the time of this statement being drafted, no response was received from DMRE.
AMCU has written several letters to a variety of employers in mining and other sectors, regarding measures during the national lockdown and the return to production post the lockdown. These engagements have had limited success.
“The current situation is quite simple, actually”, said Mathunjwa. “The mining bosses want to start working and make profits, and we want the workers to be healthy and safe. We must take all precautionary measures before the workers can return to work in a healthy and safe environment. AMCU will not allow the mines to become killing fields”, Mathunjwa added. “It is now to time practice what we preach when we say “safety first” to each other, concluded Mathunjwa.