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.