A mineworker walks at the end of his shift at the Sibanye-Stillwater mine in Carletonville. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
A mineworker walks at the end of his shift at the Sibanye-Stillwater mine in Carletonville. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

With the number of Covid-19-positive cases expected to surge beyond 500,000 before the end of winter, employers should start listening to trade unions’ advice before arrogantly throwing workers into the lion’s den. This will help in combating the effects of the pandemic at workplaces.

Tapping into what President Cyril Ramaphosa said when moving the country from a total national lockdown into lockdown level 3, we must all collectively be prepared to live with the coronavirus for a year or longer.

Observations made so far paint a gloomy picture. Regarding mineworkers, most were bulldozed into returning to work when they were unprepared and vulnerable to being exposed to the virus. We are now witnessing the consequences, with daily increases in the number of positive cases reported at various mining houses. This is untenable.

The mining sector has recorded hundreds of positive coronavirus cases with most companies still not complying with measures set out by the government. Many mining companies are not complying with requirements to screen and test workers.

The occupational health and safety of workers is a non-negotiable matter that is fundamental to workers’ rights. There is growing concern and fear among workers that the mining industry is becoming the new epicentre of the pandemic, and that the Covid-19 curve could remain on a steep upward trajectory.

Before the first national lockdown announcement in March, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) expressed serious concerns as it foresaw that the health and safety of workers would be compromised since it is difficult to maintain social distancing underground.

In most instances workers are forced to cramp together in mine cages or shafts, making it difficult for them to reduce the amount of physical contact. The underground environment is also not conducive to the prescribed regulations.

The NUM has always insisted on the right to participate in the decision-making on what controls will be implemented. That means joint health and safety committees, with trade union safety representatives fully involved in the design, implementation and monitoring of all measures taken.

Section 23 of the Mine Health and Safety Act empowers workers to refuse to perform unhealthy or unsafe work if they have reason to believe that controls are inadequate.

We recently observed another blanket approach when the reopening of schools was announced. The department of basic education had initially planned to reopen schools on June 1, but immediately postponed the plan to June 8 to ensure the readiness for resumption.

The initial lack of a collective approach seemed dangerous as proper consultations with other stakeholders, in particular trade unions, were necessary.

The department had to assure South Africans that safety measures had been put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at schools, but several schools countrywide have been temporarily closed after teachers and pupils tested positive for Covid-19.

Trade unions play an important role at workplaces because their primary purpose is to prevent work-related diseases and accidents. No worker should be sacrificed for profits during the crisis.

Luphert Chilwane
Media officer, NUM

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