South African gold producers are likely to reach a settlement of R5 billion (US$420 million) with the plaintiffs, a lawyer and industry group told that country’s press. The suit, which has little precedent in South African law, has its roots in a landmark ruling given by the Constitutional Court in 2011 that, for the first time, allowed miners suffering from lung disease to sue their employers for damages.
“I am confident that we will finalise the settlement within six weeks,” Richard Spoor, the human rights lawyer who has spearheaded the class-action suit over the disease silicosis, which gold miners contract while working underground, told Reuters.
Many of the nearly half a million miners who contracted silicosis and tuberculosis are from South Africa and nearby countries that supply labour to South African mines. The general consensus is that miners contracted these diseases because they were not provided with adequate protection during and even after apartheid rule ended in 1994.
A spokesman for the Working Group on Occupational Lung Disease, a group put together by the six companies involved, namely Harmony Gold, Gold Fields, African Rainbow Minerals, Sibanye-Stillwater, AngloGold Ashanti and Anglo-American, said they were “hopeful” that a settlement can be reached in the six-week time frame.
In February, Graham Briggs, the chair of the working group, said the settlement would be seen “within months”. In addition to the R5 billion that companies have made in provisions, there is R4 billion available from a compensation fund to which the industry has been contributing for years. “The faster we settle, the faster we can pay compensation to those who are entitled to it,” he said.
“The biggest issue is finding these people so that they can be paid,” Briggs, a former chief executive of Harmony, added. He said the industry still did not know exactly how many claimants were entitled to compensation and estimates have run from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands.
Puseletso Salae, country manager of the Lesotho-based Mineworkers Development Agency, which assists former miners and their families, told the Financial Times that for decades in his country, there was no follow-up on the thousands of workers who had left the mines in South Africa. “The mines exploited our people,” he said. “These men have been in South Africa for years. When they come back home, the only thing they have with them is silicosis and TB.”
The settlement would still need to be approved by a High Court before its implementation.