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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by the COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, at the memorial service to nine mineworkers who lost their lives on 20 July 2009

24 July 2009, Royal Bafokeng Stadium

First let me express my grief and anger at all the loss of so many workers’ lives over the past few years, in particular the nine who passed away at Impala Platinum’s mine on Monday 20 July 2009. On behalf of COSATU’s two million members I bring condolences to all the families and fellow workers of those who have passed on.

COSATU promises the NUM and the Department of Mining every possible assistance in their campaign to raise the levels of health and safety in the mines and stop this outrageous carnage of workers. The Chief Inspector of Mines must carry out a thorough investigation into this tragedy, and ensure that everything must be done to rectify the conditions which led to this fatal accident.

COSATU has also demanded the directors of the Impala Platinum group must be held personally accountable for the loss of the nine lives. The company must take responsibility for the lives of those families by maintaining the children, mothers and other families in their time of grief after this tragedy.

If the investigation exposes negligence or incompetence, all the senior mine directors and CEOs, as well as those directly responsible, should be prosecuted and, if found guilty, punished severely.

Urgent action is needed to put an end to this carnage. COSATU supports the call for every workplace to elect and safety committees to analyse, monitor and voice their concerns about safety conditions at work with their employers.

Such fatalities are personal tragedies for bereaved families and friends, but they are also a national disgrace. The number of accident in our mines is still far too high. Between 1997 and 2007, the South Africa mining industry had an appalling average of 244 work-related deaths per year reported. It is one of the highest levels in the industrialised world.

Safety is not being given the priority it demands and the mining companies must to more to turn their fine words about improving their safety record into action in the mines, so as to end the slaughter which is still taking place.

The mining industry has a shocking record but sadly it is not exceptional. The iron and steel, construction, agriculture, food, drink and beverage sectors are other sectors with bad records of workplace health and safety accidents. These sectors contribute to 47 percent of reported workplace injuries and fatalities received by the Department of Labour’s inspectorate.

We have to add to the deaths that take place at the workplace those horrific accidents that occur on the roads to and from the workplaces, involving workers who are transported like bags of potatoes on the back of open trucks. Cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse are treated better!

Around the world, the ILO estimates that approximately 2.2 million workers lose their lives annually due to occupational injuries and illness, with accidents causing at least 350,000 deaths a year at work places, and hazardous substances killing about 440,000 workers annually. Over 270 million workers are injured and 160 million a year become ill as a result of work injuries.

The death toll at work, says the ILO, much of it attributable to unsafe working practices, is the equivalent of 6,000 workers dying each day, three persons every minute.

If such casualties were occurring in wars there would be a deafening outcry throughout the world. But, as ILO Director General Juan Somavia, said in his message on the World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2008, “public awareness of occupational safety and health tends to be low and does not get the priority it merits, despite the fact that occupational accidents and diseases cause great human sufferings and loss, and that the economic cost is also very high. Four percent of global GDP, more than US$1,300,000 million, is lost each year to occupational accidents and diseases”.

Our new ANC government has made the creation of decent work one of its five top priorities, and rightly so. The definition of “decent” must include proper health and safety provision. Far too many workers are still forced to work in dangerous or unhealthy conditions.

It is especially the case among those whose jobs have been casualised or who are employed by labour brokers. Most of them do not get any medical aid cover or provident fund. They can be dismissed at any time and thrown back into the poverty of unemployment.

Many farm workers suffer conditions unchanged since the days of apartheid. They are forced to work long hours, denied public holidays and even assaulted by racist employers or managers. If they complain they risk not only their job but their home.

This must end. We fully support the call by the Minister of Labour for the banning of labour brokers and for minimum standards under sectoral determinations, and all health and safety laws to be rigidly enforced.

It is the workers who produce the wealth of this country. Yet it is their employers who get super-rich at our expense. Daily we risk our lives to dig the coal, gold and platinum out of the earth, but never see any of the fabulous profits that our employers make.

That is why we support the call for the nationalisation of the mining industry. We want an efficient industry that continues to create wealth for the nation but uses the profits to pay workers a living wage, pays taxes to improve the lives of the workers and the poor, in conditions that are safe, healthy and environmentally friendly.