The South African Federation of Trade Unions is deeply shocked and saddened at the tragedy in Zimbabwe in which at least 24 workers have lost their lives in two disused mines, which were flooded and between 60 and 70 “artisanal” miners were trapped in two shafts.
Eight survivors have been rescued but this means that another 38 are still trapped underground. In a clip posted on Twitter, one survivor told journalists that the waters had risen to neck level, forcing them to stand for days until it receded.
This tragedy coincides with a similar potential disaster in the Gupta-owned Gloria mine in Mpumalanga, which was rocked by an underground gas explosion on 6 February, when a group of people had entered it, allegedly to strip copper cables underground.
12 people have been confirmed dead, while it is still unkknown how many remain trapped. An SAPS spokesperson says that “It is no longer a rescue mission, but it is a retrieval mission,” implying they had little hope of finding any more survivors.
SAFTU sends a message of condolence to the families of the deceased iii both disasters and best wishes to the survivors for a full recovery.
The two tragedies are linked to the growth of ‘artisanal’ or ‘illegal’ mining, by poverty-stricken unemployed workers, many of them former mine workers, who are so desperate to earn money that they risk their lives in dangerous mines.
They are then super-exploited by middle-men who pay a pittance for the minerals they extract and who then make big profits on the booming black market for minerals. The workers also face the constant threat of being arrested.
In both countries this is a symptom of high unemployment. South Africa is among the six countries with the highest unemployment rates, of 37.0%. In Zimbabwe the official figure is lower but only because subsistence farmers are classified as ‘employed’. If all workers in informal employment are added to the unemployed, it comes to a staggering 95%, according to a report in the New York Times.
SAFTU does to condone any genuinely criminal activity in the mines, but a whole category of people cannot be categorised as “illegal workers”. It is an attempt to shift the blame for problems on to the shoulders of the victims rather than the real culprits – the dealers who exploit these workers. The media never refer to “illegal business men”.
None of these workers would choose such a dangerous and insecure way to survive if there was any chance of a secure job. They are part of a growing army of casualised workers who will accept any chance to scrape a living.
In South Africa they are part of the 76% of workers who are not members of any trade union, but are in the greatest need of one.
SAFTU demands that they should be officially employed by the state in a nationalised and democratic mining utility, integrated into the mainstream workforce, trained, given work in a safe and healthy environment and paid a living wage.
The federation, as part of its drive to organize the unorganized and marginalised, has identified them as a priority for recruitment into unions, so that they can fight for their rights under the constitution and labour laws, to find secure and and to have decently paid work and human dignity.