South African gold miners reach landmark settlement

A settlement reached with Anglo American could open the door to thousands of other cases against mining companies.

Themba Hadebe-file/AP
A view of the Doornkop Gold Mine, about 30km west of Johannesburg, South Africa, Sept. 4, 2013.

British mining conglomerate Anglo American agreed to pay a group of former gold miners in South Africa an undisclosed amount for health problems, a settlement that could open the door to thousands of similar suits against Anglo American and other mining companies.

It is the first settlement reached in South Africa between a mining company and employees who say they contracted respiratory diseases from working in the mines. Lawyers representing the 23 miners said the company and other mining firms should now do “the decent thing” and consider claims submitted by thousands of other workers. 

Anglo American South Africa agreed to the confidential settlement in court this week without admitting liability. The settlement comes nearly 10 years after the miners from South Africa and Lesotho launched the claim. Since then eight of the 23 men have died.

The majority of the claimants worked at the President Steyn mine in South Africa’s Free State province. 

The workers claimed that a lack of masks and inadequate watering down of dust in the mines allowed toxic silica particles from gold-bearing rocks to damage their lungs and cause silicosis.

Lawyer Richard Meeran from London-based legal firm Leigh Day, which first brought the case in 2004, said most of the damage was done during the apartheid era when work conditions in mines was poorer. The first free elections in 1994 and stronger unions have seen vastly improved standards, but Mr. Meeran's practice has another 4,000 miners with similar health conditions waiting to make compensation claims.

Speaking from Johannesburg, South Africa, Meeran said his claimants were happy with the settlement, which could act as a precedent for his clients and other compensation claimants demanding money from Anglo American and up to 30 gold firms, including AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony, and Gold Fields.

“In a technical and legal sense it’s currently the first settlement of this type in South Africa,” he said. “After this settlement you’d have to wonder why Anglo or other companies would contest similar cases – it would defy logic.” 

A spokeswoman for Anglo American, Emily Blyth, said the company was not making contingency arrangements for possible future compensation payouts and declined to go into detail about other class actions. She said Anglo American had not been given any details about would-be claimants, their conditions, or whether they worked at Anglo or other mining firms. 

Anglo American, which no longer mines gold in South Africa after selling off its interests, said its South African arm thought the agreement was in the 23 claimants’ “best interests.”  

Khanyisile Kweyama, the executive director of Anglo America South Africa added in a statement: “We continue to work with industry, government and civil society to tackle the many challenges of primary health care in South Africa. Our collective objective is to significantly improve the access and quality of care available to all South Africans as well as ensuring a healthy and safe working environment for all our employees.”

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