South Africa Gold Mines Face 500,000-Strong Suit on Diseases

  • Class action enables access to justice for poor workers: judge
  • Judgment opens way for as many as 500,000 people to join suit

A South African court has allowed thousands of former mineworkers to proceed with a class action seeking damages from mining companies for lung diseases they contracted while working at their operations.

“Class action is the only realistic option through which most mineworkers can assert” their constitutional rights, Deputy Judge President Phineas Mojapelo said at the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg Friday. Otherwise, “impoverished, indigent workers won’t be able to access justice,” he said.

Current and former mineworkers who contracted silicosis and pulmonary tuberculosis and the families of employees who have died from the diseases are eligible to join a suit, which may amount to as many as half a million people, Mojapelo said. The action would sue 32 mining companies for damages caused by unsafe working practices, lawyers for the applicants say.

Silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling dust from mines, causes scar tissue in the organs, increasing vulnerability to tuberculosis that can kill more than half of sufferers if not properly treated.

Claims Settled

In a separate case settled in March, Anglo American Plc’s South African unit and AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. agreed to pay about 500 million rand ($33 million) to 4,365 former employees who said they contracted dust-related lung diseases while working for the companies. That amounts to about 115,000 rand per person.

Under a scenario where 500,000 applicants for the class-action suit won the same amount of compensation, the mining companies would have to pay about 57.5 billion rand, or $3.8 billion.

The mining companies, which include Anglo American South Africa, AngloGold, Sibanye Gold Ltd., African Rainbow Minerals Ltd., Gold Fields Ltd. and Harmony Gold Mining Co., are studying the judgment and are pursuing an out-of-court settlement, said Alan Fine, a spokesman for the producers.

They “will decide individually whether to appeal,” he said. The companies want “a comprehensive solution that is both fair to past, present and future gold-mining employees, and also sustainable for the sector,” they said in a statement.

The next step for the applicants is to notify former mineworkers -- many of whom are from rural areas of South Africa and neighboring countries such as Mozambique -- of the case and establish the size of the class, according to Georgina Jephson, a lawyer for Richard Spoor Attorneys who’s working on the case. That may take as long as two years, she said.

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