South Africa : Miners ask for more security

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South African miners went on strike last Thursday to ask for better security measures in the country’s mines. The negligence in this sector has already caused the death of 202 miners since the beginning of the year. This strike action is a hard blow to the mining industry.

It is the biggest strike action to hit the mining sector with respect to claims of this sort, yet. The miners started a 24 hour strike, on Tuesday, demanding better security conditions. It is a hard blow to the South African economy as well as the mining sector. The sector employs more than half a million miners. South Africa is the world’s first producer of gold and platinum and is equally on the list of top producers of diamonds and coal. The strike had a high attendance. According to the main labour union – National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – it assembled over 240 000 members who made up the core of the strike action. Over 60 companies were affected among which were some of the biggest groups including Anglogold Ashanti.

An all-powerful sector

The strikers spelt out their demands during their march to the Chamber of Mines, the organisation that represents the mining companies. According to the NUM, about 45 000 took part. a memorandum asking « mining companies to take the necessary steps to make the mines safer and also for the government to sanction those who default in maintaining standards » was given to the president of the Chamber, the miners said.

Since the begining of this year, 202 miners have met their deaths. Falling of stones, collapsing of walls and explosions being the major cause of accidents, the miners want the companies to invest in research geared at preventing them. The last accident took place in the month of October, where over 3 200 miners were blocked in a mine belonging to Harmony Gold, situated at about a 100 km south west of Johannesburg. A faulty pipe brought about the breakdown of the lift system. The miners were brought back up after thirty gruelling hours. The country’s president Thabo Mbeki, ordered « an audit of all the mines to determine whether they met the security norms set by law ».

Security, a big problem

Exploiting companies agree to the fact that South African mines are among some of the most dangerous in the world due to their great depths. The mortality rate is 50% higher than american, australian or canadian installations and the digits have been stagnant since 2005… « we made good progess in 2005 but not in 2006, whilst in 2007 our performance fell », confirmed Sietse van der Woude –a security advisor to the Chamber of Mines- during an interview with the AFP. According to him this high mortality rate contributes to a high turnover and the lack of inspectors to conduct necessary security checks. A feeling that Peter Bailey, one of the spokespersons of NUM, shares. He says « we have to make sure that negligence pays dearly, in a way that the industry could not allow itself to breach set standards ».

This Tuesday’s strike action is part of an effort to put pressure on industry. If they did not know aforehand exactly how much the day was to cost them they certainly knew that production had been slowed. The miners warned that they may return with another strike action after the holiday season if their demands were not met. In the meantiment, work goes on undeterred, says the labour union.

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