Amcu leader Joseph Mathunjwa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Amcu leader Joseph Mathunjwa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

As the mining industry debates the consequences of the 21-day lockdown and its possible extension, one of the main unions suggested heightened safety regulations to apply across the sector to clear the way for restarting mines.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), best known for two of the longest strikes in SA’s labour history, proposed a joint task team from the department of minerals & energy, Minerals Council SA and unions, to agree on a set of safety standards.

The team would draw on advice from specialist bodies and the minister of health, Zweli Mkhize, who has won acclaim for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the response from the health sector.

“As Amcu, we will not support any ramp-up of operations at mines before these regulations are agreed upon and gazetted accordingly,” the union’s president, Joseph Mathunjwa, said.

“We can simply not afford to let mineworkers die due to a lacking and uncoordinated approach to this pandemic by the individual mines,” he said.

Union leadership met minerals & energy minister Gwede Mantashe earlier on Tuesday, with the council meeting him on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday to discuss the consequences of the lockdown, which started on March 27 and resulted in the immediate shutdown of underground mines.

Without masks

Pictures on Mantashe’s Twitter account show the minister with a face mask covering only his mouth as he takes notes, while others, such as director-general Thabo Mokoena, have opted not to wear one at all. Adviser and former department director-general Sandile Nogxina has one he has either taken off or is putting on.

The meeting of about 24 people at a long table in the department’s offices in Pretoria shows many attendees without masks, including Minerals Council SA CEO Roger Baxter, but with people sitting in every second seat, prompting questions why it was necessary to have the meeting in person and not on a digital platform, keeping captains of industry, union leadership and government officials safe.

It was noted in Mantashe’s message that the meeting was with the council, which is the mining companies’ representative body, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), trade union Solidarity and UASA. Amcu, the biggest mining union next to the NUM, was not at the meeting.

The two-day meeting was to “proactively manage issues directly affecting the industry in the interests of ensuring employee health and safety, as well as ensuring that companies are able to meet their obligations during this time”, it reads.

Limited operations

Mantashe has repeatedly said there has been the realisation that furnaces and refineries could be damaged by turning them off and on, and that those could be kept operational, as well as coal mines supplying Eskom and export contracts, and mines where social distancing could be enforced.

This has resulted in limited operations in platinum group metals, gold, iron ore, chrome and manganese, especially at those companies with open pit mines. Mantashe has said these mines had to operate with up to half their normal workforces.

The council said in a note to its members on April 3 that it was vital for mines to return to operation on April 17 when the three-week lockdown ended, or there could be permanent damage.

It noted that a fifth of April’s mine production would be lost and this would translate to a 4.5% decline for the year.

It said mining companies were paying R7bn in wages during the lockdown and this did not include the cost of putting mines into care and maintenance, which are programmes to keep mines pumped free of water, ventilated and safe, incurring expenditure while no or limited revenue was coming in.

Returning underground mines to production can take two to four weeks, with extensive medical screening of thousands of employees and retraining on safety.

Amcu wants a “specific and enhanced standard of personal protective equipment (PPE) [to] be made compulsory for all mining operations, in combination with strategies to mitigate risk and manage identified infections”.

Mathunjwa said: “It has never been more important for the department to manage the conflicting interests of workers and employers. It is time to work together to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sector.”

The council has adopted a 10-point plan across all companies that entails giving employees and medical staff access to masks, gloves and safety glasses as well as infrared monitors to check people’s temperatures, fever being one of the symptoms of the disease.