Mining Indaba 2021
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Covid-19Health & SafetyNewsSouthern Africa

World’s mine workers resist quick restart amid coronavirus

As mining heavyweights South Africa and Peru move to lift coronavirus lockdowns, workers in deep mines are resisting going back to work without adequate protective gear and information about cases at sites, with one major union filing legal action against restart plans.

The workers fear being literal canaries in the coal mine in facilities where social distancing is nearly impossible and warn that companies are not divulging coronavirus cases, putting them at risk.

South Africa, the world’s largest producer of platinum, manganese and chrome ore, is letting its mines run at half-capacity after a national lockdown. Peru, which hopes to end its own lockdown on May 10, is the world’s No. 2 copper producer and No. 6 gold producer.

“Reopening the mines without proper regulation in place is a really bad idea for workers and for the communities that they come from,” said Richard Spoor, a lawyer for South Africa’s Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which represents more than 250,000 miners. “It’s a bad idea for mining, frankly.”

AMCU filed legal action last week to demand national safety standards for mines, including nationwide sanitization procedures and a minimum standard for protective gear, potentially raising costs for companies.

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A ruling is expected soon after an April 29 hearing. On Tuesday, AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa said the union needs to know workers are safe before they return to mines.

South African mining companies are pushing for a restart, saying 10% of the industry’s workforce could lose their jobs and 15% of its output is threatened.

Logistics will still hamper any resumption. South African miners are restricting bus loads to mine sites to 20 workers at a time, even though the cages used to transport workers underground hold up to 1,000. Companies plan to limit the amount of people allowed in the cages at one time and conduct screening of symptoms before allowing entry down the shaft.

Copper and platinum prices are down about 16% and 21% since the beginning of January, respectively. Gold prices have risen, partly on the metal’s safe-haven appeal.

Unions in both countries are openly encouraging members not to return to mines. At least one executive in South Africa has been arrested for flouting safety standards.