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.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is ready for its appearance in the Labour Court tomorrow. This urgent application involves forcing 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. While there is a high level of agreement between AMCU and the employers’ organisation, the Minerals Council, regarding the setting of national minimum standards, the DMRE and Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) has opposed AMCU’s application.
AMCU will be in the Labour Court tomorrow, 29 April 2020 to argue for an order to compel the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Honourable Gwede Mantashe to issue binding regulations to protect mineworkers from Covid-19. This, as mining bosses were given the green light to ramp up to 50% of production during Phase 5 of the national lockdown, with even more set to return after 1 May 2020 when Level 4 commences.
While has consistently declared its support for the mines ramping up production, this can only take place once national minimum standards are put in place to ensure the health and safety of workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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. This vulnerability includes the peculiar risks posed by highly congested working areas with low levels of natural ventilation, coupled with the high levels of predisposition caused by silicosis and tuberculosis. AMCU fears this will lead to widespread infection amongst mineworkers as well as the vulnerable communities that host them. However, the Minister has ignored all AMCU’s pleas and proposals thus far, and therefore AMCU was forced to approach the court.
The current urgent application to the Labour Court was brought last week, and subsequently Judge Tlhotlhalemaje J ordered AMCU and the respondents to publish a notice for interested parties to join the court action, on their respective websites. This included the publishing of the notion of motion, founding affidavit in the name of AMCU General Secretary Jeff Mphahlele, as well as the various relevant annexures. [These documents can be viewed at www.amcu.co.za.]
Since that time, it became clear that some mining companies as well as the Minerals Council was interested in settlement, and a settlement offer was made to AMCU. AMCU engaged constructively and proposed certain amendments to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) proposed by the Minerals Council. These amendments were largely informed by AMCU’s panel of experts, namely Professors Rodney Ehrlich (UCT), Jill Murray (Wits), Rajen Naidoo (UKZN), Pam Sonnenberg (University College London), and David Rees (National Institute of Health), who were of the opinion that the SOP as it stands, lacks specificity. This related to factors such as the issuing of the correct standard of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the maintenance of proper social distancing measures including underground situations such as congested lift cages, as well as the supply of proper hand sanitiser at specific points in the workplace.
Only the DMRE and COGTA oppose the relief sought by AMCU, with the DMRE arguing that the current regulations are sufficient to protect mineworkers. These departments hold the view that individual mining companies should be allowed to regulate themselves.
“As AMCU, we want our State to take up its role as regulator,” said AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa. “They must be impartial and look after the interests of workers as well. They cannot be player and referee at the same time,” Mathunjwa added.
The court case is set down for tomorrow at 10:00 via the Zoom remote meeting application, and AMCU will be represented by Adv Alan Dodson SC, Adv Michael Bishops and instructing attorneys Richard Spoor Incorporated.
“We remain positive that the judge will see the sense of our application, as well as the good faith in which it is brought. Mineworkers cannot be sent to the slaughterhouse so that mining bosses can ensure their profits and bonuses,” said Mathunjwa. “We need to know that workers are safe before they return to work and go underground,” Mathunjwa concluded.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has brought two court applications against the Department of Minerals and Energy (DMRE) for its lacking regulation of the safe return to work of workers in the mining and energy sector. The one application by the Union is heard at the Gauteng High Court today, while the other is set down at the Labour Court. AMCU is positive that their applications will force the DMRE to set national minimum standards for health and safety during the scourge of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Whilst the Union is supportive of a return to work and ramping up production, it will not support such if the safety of its members are not guaranteed by national minimum standards.
Yesterday, AMCU filed an urgent application to the Labour Court challenging Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe’s staggering decision to send more than two hundred thousand mineworkers back to the mines with no meaningful regulation to protect them from the scourge of Covid-19.
Instead of regulating, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy has issued permits allowing mines to operate if they comply with the “directive from the Minister’s speech.”
“This is totally unacceptable”, said AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa. “The Minister’s decision is an abdication of his duty to protect mineworkers’ lives under the Mine Health and Safety Act. While some mining companies may well take good measures, it is not enough for the Minister to rely on all companies’ voluntary goodwill. This is reckless and will endanger the lives of many”, he added.
AMCU has previously in numerous correspondences to the DMRE expressed its concern that this state of affairs will lead to the infection of mineworkers, who are uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19 given the nature of the workplace and the hidden pandemic of lung diseases such as silicosis and tuberculosis that mineworkers face because of previous government failures to protect mineworkers from mining companies. AMCU fears this will lead to widespread infection amongst mineworkers as well as the vulnerable communities that host them.
AMCU’s repeated pleas that the Minister issue regulations have all been ignored.
“We have tried our level best to show the Minister that our submissions are made in good faith, and that it is the only way to ensure the health and safety of mineworkers”, said Mathunjwa. “Even some progressive employers agree with us that we need a national standard that is binding on all mines. They simply ignored our letters, and even letters from our legal teams, so now we are forced to go to court”, he said.
AMCU’s application is supported by an expert opinion from some of South Africa’s foremost experts in public health and occupational medicine: Professors Rodney Erlich, Jill Murray, Rajen Naidoo, and David Rees. Their expert opinion concludes:
“The original question required of us of was whether at a national level, adequate measures have been put in place to ensure that mineworkers will return to a working environment that is not harmful to their health and safety or the communities where they reside.
If the decision is made to return to work and without more from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, we must conclude that the current instruments described do not adequately address the safety concerns of mineworkers, their families and extended communities. More is required.”
“It is very disappointing that the honourable Minister, the Chief Inspector of Mines, and the Minerals Council (formerly known as the Chamber of Mines) immediately opposed our application. It is hard to believe that they will send mineworkers underground with no proper health and safety regulations being in place”, said Mathunjwa. “We again call on the honourable Minister to act decisively under the Mine Health and Safety Act to protect the lives of mineworkers and the communities where they live,” Mathunjwa added.
AMCU has brought two applications against the DMRE. The first one was to set aside the Minister’s decision to exempt 129 mines from the Covid-19 regulations for being essential mining services. This issue has become less urgent since the amended regulations announced by the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Honourable Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on 16 April 2020. This case will sit today at the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, and AMCU will formally remove the matter from the urgent role, to be argued later during the normal course.
The second application is to the Labour Court, and it is heard over two days. This afternoon at 14:00 will be part A of the application. It is purely procedural and seeks orders regarding how AMCU is giving notice of the application to the mining industry as a whole. Next Tuesday, on 28 April 2020 will be part B of the application. Then AMCU will seek a final order that either the Minister or the Chief Inspector have failed to issue binding regulations to be gazetted, and ordering them to do so.
“We are very positive about our prospects of success in these cases”, said Mathunjwa. “It is as clear as daylight that there needs to be minimum standards for the health and safety of mineworkers to protect them against this virus, and that these standards must be set at national level to be binding on all mines. We are not opposed to the mines ramping up for production and for the workers to return to work, but safety must come first. Since these amended regulations has now become law, we have urged our members to comply but reminded them of their right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions”, Mathunjwa concluded.