Unclaimed Benefits for former mineworkers
“There was not much money, it was less than R20,000 (a once-off figure). My siblings made contributions towards the burial. If it wasn’t for that I would have buried my husband on a hide.”
These are the searing words of Ofentse Moloi. Her husband succumbed to TB, which he contracted in an underground South African mine after 17 years of service.
The work of ensuring that former mineworkers access their social security and occupational health benefits has proven a long and testing journey that involved many stakeholders who fulfilled specific roles throughout.
Its success depends on involvement across institutional boundaries, according to Hassen Lorgat, a researcher from the Benchmarks Foundation.
“I think the unions, civic organisations and mining communities must get more involved in this process along with the National Council of Churches representing different SADC regions,” he said.
Under the challenging circumstances they work in, ex-mineworkers’ organisations need support from other institutions and NGOs. The Southern Africa Trust is among organisations that have taken the plight of migrant workers and ex-miners seriously by supporting organisations such as the Southern Africa Miners Association (SAMA).
“We engage in a whole policy spectrum…. We engage in capacity building, so we’ve given SAMA financial assistance that allows the organisation to engage in policy spaces,” said the Trust CEO Bhekinkosi Moyo.
The Trust’s involvement dates as far back as the first multi-stakeholder dialogues which involved national governments, present and former mineworkers, civil society organisations and South African social security institutions. This was done through a regional taskforce that has kept stakeholders locked in constructive engagement.
One of the biggest challenges faced by ex-mineworkers is the inability to access their pension benefits and compensation for illnesses suffered due to occupational health risks. Added to this is the absence of a social security portability mechanism across the different countries in the region.
“The need exists for us to collaborate with former mineworkers who need access to their benefits as well as those still working in the mines today. We need to accept that this is not just an issue for the governments, but one that we need to resolve collectively,” Moyo said.
Kitso Phiri, an officer from Ditshwanelo, the Botswana human rights organisation, lauds the assistance offered mineworkers’ causes. In Botswana, many challenges stand in the way of migrant workers, including ex-miners facing unique challenges.
“SAMA has been able to assist in the formation of the Botswana Labour Migrant Worker’s Association (BoLAMA) – the only ex-mineworkers organisation in the country. Previously, Batswana ex-miners were left out of key decision-making processes at regional level as the extent and effect of the migratory system created by the South African mining industry was unknown in Botswana,” Phiri said.
Since its formation, the ex-miners association has been on a quest to create a live network of miners’ organisations that advocate for the rights of former migrant workers and their families. According to Phiri, the association is currently undertaking an expansion project that will encompass all SADC countries.
Working underground meant many ex-mineworkers were exposed to occupational hazards, such as silicosis, asbestos-related illnesses and TB. Campaigns that help ex-miners and their widows claim compensation for illnesses contracted at the mines pressure governments to use instruments at their disposal effectively, said Phiri.
“These instruments include the SADC Declaration on TB in the Mining Sector, Code of Conduct on TB in Mining Sector, SADC Charter on Social Rights and SADC Mining Protocol,” he said.
This kind of work must not lose its momentum, according to Thulani Ngcamphalala, Swaziland Migrant Mineworkers Association’s project officer for social security benefit- related programmes and its efforts aimed at information dissemination. He says mining communities live under strenuous conditions and grinding poverty.
“The campaigns will help in disseminating correct and accurate information with regards to compensation and social security benefits. This will also minimize risks the beneficiaries face while they try to claim their benefits.”
“We have learnt that a lot of beneficiaries may start the process of making claims but along the way they fail due to a number of reasons and the complexity of the processes,” Ngcamphalala said.
The most recent developments have seen the successful tracing of thousands of beneficiaries, who are owed almost R6bn by social security fund holders. Working together with the Financial Services Board has led to more than R400m already being paid out.
Much remains to be done according to literature from research projects supported by the Southern Africa Trust. The necessary reforms should involve an overhaul of administrative procedures that stall the claiming processes. The main stumbling block to a successful system is the lack of awareness about institutions and incorrect documentation. Many of the ex-mineworkers live in far-flung rural areas.
The mines in South Africa have attracted labourers from across the SADC region. Many of these workers have returned to remote rural districts that are underdeveloped and consequently suffer the strain of poverty on the margins of society.
Strained industrial relations between mineworkers and employers in South Africa add to the pressure that accrues to claiming benefits. In 2014, miners in the country’s platinum belt embarked on a five month-long strike, arguably the longest industrial action in the country’s mining history.
Labour action highlights the vulnerability of migrant workers from other SADC countries. If unorganised they fall prey to efforts aimed at dividing workers. Numsa spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi says they sometimes receive reports that are cause for concern.
“Also, we worry that they are being exploited because as foreign workers they are probably not being properly remunerated.”