Mineworkers are shown gathering at a facility at an Impala mine. File photo: MOELETSI MABE
Mineworkers are shown gathering at a facility at an Impala mine. File photo: MOELETSI MABE

About two-thirds of mineworkers asked to return to work have done so, and it will take weeks before mines can reach 50% of capacity. But for some it’s too little too late.

In a comprehensive briefing by the Minerals Council SA and some of its main members, the mechanisms to bring mineworkers back to operations and the screening, testing and plans about isolating and quarantining those found with the Covid-19 virus were explained.

Underground mines were shut on March 27 when the initial 21-day lockdown started; it was later extended to the end of April. About 30% of the 450,000 people employed in the industry remained at opencast mines, tailings operations, smelters and refineries as well as coal mines supplying Eskom and JSE-listed liquid fuel maker Sasol.

The council has warned that some mines could be permanently closed. The government allowed mines to return to 50% capacity from April 16 under strict controls about health and safety.

“Before entering the lockdown, we had smaller mines that were quite marginal and were struggling. If the lockdown continues beyond April some mines will be severely affected. Some have already been affected by the original 21 days and the extension,” said Motsamai Motlhamme, head of employment relations at the council.

He noted the retrenchment process started by Village Main Reef gold mining company to lay off more than 6,000 people, citing the compounded difficulties of the lockdown on an already struggling business.

Mining companies had paid their workforce basic wages during the first 21 days, but with the extended lockdown and only half of employees returning, many companies were unable to keep up payments to those staying at home, prompting them to turn to the government-run unemployment insurance fund, Motlhamme said.

Sibanye-Stillwater, SA’s gold and platinum group metals miner, said it had paid R1.5bn towards salaries during the lockdown and welcomed the partial return to work to defray these costs.

The April 16 amended regulations stipulated a return of mines to  50% of capacity, but industry participants were unsure whether this meant staffing levels or production. Whatever the case, the difficulties about logistics and the processes of returning thousands of miners underground after a long stoppage has made the question largely academic at this stage.

“It’s safe to say that the majority of underground mines will not even be able to reach 50% of production by the end of this month because it’s quite a process to ramp up,” said Tebello Chabana, the council’s senior executive of public affairs and transformation.

Taxi drivers threaten violence

The return of mineworkers from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal by buses contracted to mines hit a snag when minibus taxi operators threatened to stop and burn the buses, demanding they be given a role to play in the transport of people. It took the intervention of the police and minerals ministries to resolve the matter, Motlhamme said.

People in rural areas without access to printers relied on electronic copies of return-to-work permits on their mobile phones, but police at roadblocks refused to accept these notifications if they were not in a hard copy, he said. Again, it took the intervention of the police and minerals ministries to ease the problem.

“To date, about 60% of recalled employees have returned to work and there’s a slow ramp up of operations. The major constraint right now is at TEBA offices with long queues and the screening and fitness tests that have to be done. Those are causing delays in the start-up of operations,” he said.

TEBA is a mine recruitment and mineworkers’ services company that has about 100 offices in rural areas that serve as meeting points for returning employees and where an initial screening is done.

Mining companies would screen returned staff through questions and the taking of temperatures. Anything that raised a red flag would result in the employee being tested for the virus.

“We do hope that in time we will have resources to make it possible to do targeted interventions with additional testing ... in addition to the required processes of screening and testing, we can add a bit to the science and evidence,” said Thuthula Balfour, head of health at the council.

The focus for mining companies was to prevent the virus from infecting any of their employees rather than having to treat those who have fallen ill, Balfour said. To date, only nine people in the industry have tested positive for Covid-19.

For underground mines, teams can earn bonus pay based on production levels.

“That is an incentive for many people to come back because bonus pay can be very substantial in some cases,” said Gold Fields spokesperson Sven Lunsche.

An urgent case brought by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) to the labour court to force the state to regulate the health and safety aspects of the return to work under Covid-19 conditions was being contested by the department of mineral resources & energy and energy and the council.

However, while the council had an argument about the virus being declared a workplace health hazard, as sought by Amcu in its application that will be heard on Wednesday, it had no problem with the introduction of regulations, said Ursula Brown, the council’s head of legal.

“We are not averse to the department publishing any regulations to indicate how employers need to mitigate the spread of the virus to ensure the health and safety of employees.”

seccombea@businesslive.co.za

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