Thursday | 09 April | 2020
By Reon Janse van Rensburg
Mineral Resources and Energy Minister, Gwede Mantashe, this week met with various mining unions and the Minerals Council of South Africa to discuss possibilities with stakeholders aimed at increasing the entire mining sector’s production in a slow, controlled and secure manner to get up and running again.
Gold and coal mines have been allowed to operate at low levels of production due to the physical damage to equipment that could ensue if mines and smelters were to come to a complete standstill. To date, further permits and / or exemptions have been approved strictly by only Mr Mantashe.
It is for geological reasons that mines cannot come to a complete halt as there is a high risk of rock falls especially in deep gold mines, while coal mines have remained operational as far as possible to supply coal to Eskom’s power plants.
There is currently major concern about the large number of marginal mines that could close due to financial reasons if they cannot get back into production immediately, while some of the larger mining houses may also be forced to reduce their workforce due to a lack of income. As there is still uncertainty as to whether or not the lockdown will be extended, planning is taking place for both scenarios, including an extension of the lockdown should that be necessary.
What needs to be done to get back into production post Covid-19 is already receiving attention now as all mines that have to start up production again will first have to do a comprehensive risk analysis to fully address all possible risks associated with the Covid-19 phase as well as of other risks that should normally be considered in the mining sector before returning to a normal production routine.
The principle of social distancing will be the core of every aspect of operation in the mining sector and it will be practiced and maintained throughout the sector. Every mine will also require that every employee be tested for Covid-19 before he or she may enter the workplace. If an employee shows symptoms the person will be quarantined immediately and will be taken to a medical facility.
“The underlying principle of getting the mines going again is not about health / safety versus the economy as the two are on an equal footing and so it is about health / safety and the economy,” Solidarity General Secretary Gideon du Plessis said.
According to Riaan Visser, Solidarity’s deputy general secretary for the mining industry, health and safety remain a priority for the trade union like always, but Solidarity understands the needs of employees, employers and of government. Employees need an income and job security. Employers need income to sustain their business and government needs tax revenue, while mining communities need the basic services provided by the various mining companies in their communities. In the absence of these vital elements poverty and social decay will follow which is not in anybody’s interest.
According to Du Plessis, the way in which mining has been done up to now will never be the same and there will now be an emphasis on health too. In view of this, many practices will be changed and adapted to create a healthier and safer workplace.
Post Covid-19, he believes employees may, however, be required to work additional and/or longer shifts due to the loss of production during the Covid-19 pandemic and especially during the lockdown period. Other alternatives to make up for losses, thereby limiting job losses to a minimum, will also have to be considered.
Solidarity confirmed that it is fully committed to the minister’s appeal to unions to take up the role of inspector during the lockdown period and will give its full cooperation in this regard. The trade union encourages its members to abide by the relevant regulations but also assures its members that Solidarity would take steps on behalf of them if they are treated or compensated unfairly during this period.
Mining trade unions, including Solidarity, the Minerals Council and the Department are currently hard at work to draft regulations and to fine-tune them. The purpose of the regulations is to make it possible for employees to return to a safe working environment as soon as possible. However, there are still obstacles such as differences between role players that need to be ironed out as well as the concern of the Department of Health that if mines go back into production too quickly it could pose an increased health risk in areas that cannot be managed and controlled properly.
Solidarity would also like to encourage its members to contact their representatives if there are uncertainties or concerns with regard to job security or unfair behaviour in the workplace.
* All information was correct at the time of publication.