Protesters voice their opinions outside the High Court in Johannesburg during the case between gold mining companies and miners who had contracted silicosis. Picture: ALON SKUY
Protesters voice their opinions outside the High Court in Johannesburg during the case between gold mining companies and miners who had contracted silicosis. Picture: ALON SKUY

After years of intensive negotiations, mineworkers who have been affected by silicosis as a result of working in gold mines will at last be compensated by the companies for which they worked. The first pay-outs are expected for the end of June.

The compensation for workers suffering from occupational lung diseases is the outcome of a landmark class action which culminated in a R5bn settlement between claimants and six SA gold mining companies.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Investing in Africa Mining Indaba on Wednesday, Michael Murray, chair of the Occupational Lung Disease Working Group that represents the companies (African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye-Stillwater), said the trust, which facilitates the pay-outs, was formed on December 10 and, despite being in its infancy, is aware that a lot of work is being done to plan ahead for this. He says: “We hope the trust will pretty much be running and making its first payments in the second quarter of 2020.”

The Johannesburg court approved the R5bn settlement agreement but all potential claimants covered by the class action first had to be given the option to opt out before the trust could be formed.

The number of former mineworkers who may seek to claim from the fund could be as high as 1-million, though the companies expect the number of those actually eligible to claim will be closer to 100,000.

“Quite extraordinarily, only three people opted out,” Murray says. “Had there been more than 2,000, the settlement agreement could have been nullified by the mining companies.”

Those who did not opt out will benefit from the settlement, but their participation in the agreement may take away their right to sue any of the companies later.

Murray says the companies do not have details about the three people who opted out and cannot say what their intentions are.

He says: “This was the most extraordinarily complex negotiation you could ever imagine. There has certainly never been a settlement like it in SA — or, I’d venture to say, anywhere in the world.

“This settlement goes beyond anything the courts could ever have achieved … It’s a classic example of taking a dispute and making it something both parties can benefit from.”

Eligible claimants will be paid out fixed sums depending on the severity of the occupational lung disease they suffer from.

The agreement stipulates a range of categories, including one that deals with dependants of workers who have passed away, but Murray says there are three primary classes of payment: classes two, three and four.

Class two deals with claimants with first-degree silicosis. They will be eligible for a R150,000 pay-out. Class three involves claimants with second-degree silicosis, who will receive R250,000. Class four relates to those suffering extraordinary disease conditions. They will get up to R500,000, but very few claimants are expected to fall into this class.

Claimants who develop silicosis in the next 12 years will also be eligible for compensation.

The R5bn funding pool is guaranteed by various banks, so there is no danger of claimants not being paid out.

In terms of the Occupational Diseases in Mines & Works Act current and former miners are entitled to statutory compensation for occupational lung disease, but the system has been dysfunctional and some claimants have not been paid for over 20 years.

Murray says mining companies have been working hand-in-hand with the relevant commissioner to ensure that workers also receive the statutory compensation they are entitled to.

A class two claimant, who is entitled to the R150,000 pay-out in terms of the settlement trust, is entitled to claim an additional R64,000 from the statutory fund, for example. A class three claimant can receive R250,000 from the trust as well as R150,000 in statutory compensation.

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