Mine bosses profit from ‘vulnerable’ workers

As gold increases in value, the mining sector is about to make a lot more money – but plans to dismiss vulnerable workers.

With uncertainty from both Covid-19 and vague government policy prevailing in the industry, mining companies are ensuring their profits and controlling the risk by dismissing mineworkers. Designated as “vulnerable”, thousands of employees face dismissal – and mining bosses are seizing the opportunity. 

Currently, mines seem to be coping with the Covid-19 storm. As at 24 August 2020, reported figures show 141 deaths and 1 320 active cases reported from a population of over 430 000 employees, with a higher than national average recovery rate. 

The platinum sector, followed by gold, shows the highest numbers of infections in the industry. Representing about 90% of the overall mineral production in South Africa through its members, the Minerals Council shows concerted efforts at combating the novel coronavirus. However, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy does report that many mines are not complying with the Covid-19 mandatory code of practice, in only screening body temperature of employees and not enforcing the full screening process (including Covid-19 symptoms) both before and after work. 

Burgeoning profits

Covid-19 is exacting heavy economic tolls worldwide and the mining industry is no exception. But, since 2000, the gold price has been generally appreciating, with a peak in September 2011 of $1 869.90 per ounce (or about R1 151 per gram). 

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In 2020 alone, the price of gold has soared by 30%. With global uncertainty and especially the US economic woes, safety is being sought in gold once again. In US dollars per ounce, the gold price is at an all-time high, having finally broken $2 000 per ounce on 6 August 2020. This bullishness of gold will benefit private shareholders rather than the market, with gold production for South Africa at a tenth of what it once was. South African miner owners are indeed making gold while the sun shines. 

Striving to manage their risk and ensure their profits, many mine bosses are using their go-to tool: cutting the wage bill through dismissals. 

Sibanye-Stillwater leads the charge

Sibanye-Stillwater, the largest employer in the South African mining sector with approximately 85 000 workers in their operations, is currently engaging in a Covid-19 risk-based assessment of their entire workforce, rooting out so-called “vulnerable” mineworkers and attempting to send them home. 

The number of affected mineworkers is estimated in the tens of thousands. Like other employers, they are following the Department of Health’s Guidance on Vulnerable Employees and Workplace Accommodation in Relation to Covid-19 (V4) released on 25 May. It specifies the following five major categories of persons considered vulnerable to contracting the virus: 60 years or older; underlying chronic medical conditions, including diabetes and heart conditions; severe obesity; immunocompromised; and over 28 weeks pregnant.

The guideline hastens to state that it is an interim guide for employers and that the employer is obliged to change the workplace to protect the employee and not get rid of employees who may be at risk. Sibanye-Stillwater employees categorised as “vulnerable” will be sent home for six months with either a mutual separation package (MSP) or will be incapacitated (dismissed for health reasons). Those workers opting for the MSP will be paid off in a similar manner to employees being retrenched under what is known as voluntary separation packages. 

Those employees actually incapacitated under this proposed “vulnerable” worker policy may return to work after six months but only via a pre-planned reapplication process. But workers will still be considered “vulnerable” if they are 60 years and older, per the health department’s guideline. Others with conditions that have not abated or are chronic will also remain “vulnerable” in the context of Covid-19. 

Those workers who elect not to take the Sibanye-Stillwater MSP will be re-employed only if a position is available. Usually, for incapacitated workers, their former job is no longer available when they reapply as it has either been made redundant or filled by another worker. These jobs do not get reserved. 

18 May 2020: A protester returns home to Seraleng near Rustenburg. Residents gathered at Sibanye-Stillwater’s K5 mine shaft to protest against the lack of food, unemployment, loss of business and no access to a social labour plan. (Photograph by Dino Lloyd/ Gallo Images via Getty Images)
18 May 2020: A protester returns home to Seraleng near Rustenburg. Residents gathered at Sibanye-Stillwater’s K5 mine shaft to protest against the lack of food, unemployment, loss of business and no access to a social labour plan. (Photograph by Dino Lloyd/ Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Incapacitation is another form of dismissal: not for misconduct but rather on medical grounds. Frequently, in the mining industry, workers injured or made sick by their work are incapacitated as they can no longer fulfil the “inherent requirements of the job”. The same applies for those workers with non-work-related conditions, such as diabetes, who are also dismissed for being too ill. 

Mining companies prefer to give these jobs to healthier, more productive workers. For years in the industry, one method of inadvertent, but de facto, retrenchment has been incapacitation: a weeding process by mining bosses. With Covid-19, this practice is augmented, with mining companies able to effectively bypass the formal retrenchment process set out under the Labour Relations Act. 

Sibanye-Stillwater is not the only miner embarking on this “vulnerable” workers route. Harmony Gold has already initiated a similar process, with other miners to follow with similar measures. This tactic aims to ensure the mining sector not only controls its risk but opportunistically, especially for gold miners, may ensure a potentially highly profitable outcome.

Deepening vulnerability and evading liability

Granted, certain employees are indeed vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both list older people, people with uncontrolled type II diabetes, lung or heart disease, high body mass index and those with depressed immune systems to be at significant risk. The National Department of Health agrees with both the WHO and the CDC regarding these risky conditions. Despite all this, a question remains unanswered for South African employees: in the face of Covid-19, is having no job an even greater risk? 

On average, mineworkers have eight to 10 dependents. This number is certain to rise, with employers shedding jobs nationally. Already living on or below the poverty line, most workers are facing the lockdown, a pressurised healthcare system and a harsh winter.

Mining communities face dire circumstances with higher than normal rates of lung disease (including pulmonary tuberculosis) and derelict municipal services. In many such communities, the lack of clean water is a daily threat to staying safe during the pandemic. Significant portions of employees in the industry come from the rural Eastern Cape with scarce healthcare provision. Mineworkers also originate from Mozambique, Lesotho and eSwatini – all with significant problems in medical and social services. 

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Under such conditions, of course mineworkers sent home with conditions rendering them “vulnerable” are at risk. In fact, they are likely more vulnerable being forced to move from controlled environments to uncontrolled ones. They are forced to leave their access to at least marginally functioning medical care through the mine and have to rely on the dysfunctional public healthcare system.

Being at home will not necessarily be safer for such mineworkers than being at work. In such circumstances, are these “vulnerable” mineworkers in actuality being made more vulnerable?

But even at work, should mineworkers get sick during their employment, what pressures will weigh on them when employers are sloughing off “vulnerable” workers? How will this affect employees who now must report any symptoms they develop – possibly the common cold – and necessarily be placed in the exit line and then likely sent home? Being categorised as a “vulnerable” worker will likely carry the incentive for them not to report their symptoms. 

The two-faced future

It remains to be seen how mining unions will deal with this challenge of mass incapacitations. Will they collaborate or will they fight? What will a strike in the mining sector look like under Covid-19 conditions? Can the economic boat be rocked that much? Are they biding their time or are they being meek? 

What is certain is the elasticity of capitalism and its unrelenting exploitation of black mineworkers. We have seen both the conservative and extreme efforts of the capitalist system in coping with this global pandemic. Billions of dollars are both released and captured with loans and dismissals across the board. Yet the captains of industry are calling for “significant structural and institutional reform” and “the critical need to improve the country’s competitiveness and ease of doing business rankings”, as penned by the Mineral Council’s chief officer Roger Baxter. He outlines the eight steps indicated by the Minerals Council that “need to be urgently addressed … in the next four years”. Among them is the key role of modernisation, which is another effort to trim overheads and the wage bill. 

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What of the impact of joblessness in the industry? And this after the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is already placing “vulnerable” black southern African mineworkers at a significant disadvantage. They will face global uncertainty with a generally reactionary context, a massively pressurised national economy, a healthcare sector at capacity and stalled education and employment environments – all without income. 

The future for these mineworkers and their families is surely wretched. But with the current bullishness of gold set to continue, according to many commodity experts, the near future is paved with money for mine owners and shareholders. 

Lev Blissett is a pseudonym.

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