South African bishops file class-action suit against mining company over black lung disease

south africa mine South African platinum and chrome miners drilling holes in rock for blasting. | Shutterstock

The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference began the process of filing a class-action suit against a global mining company on behalf of current and former miners who turned to the Church for help after contracting incurable lung diseases.

An application for certification of a class action, initiated by the conference’s Commission for Justice and Peace, accuses the mining company South32 of failing to provide workers with adequate training, equipment, and a safe working environment. The application alleges that the company failed to create procedures and protections required by law and asks the court to order compensation to be paid to those workers.

Cardinal-elect Stephen Brislin, the archbishop of Cape Town, said in a statement that the bishops took the initiative to assist the miners because ex-employees do not receive legal assistance from the unions of which they were formerly members while working.

“Ex-mine workers are no longer under trade unions, and this renders them voiceless and incapable of demanding social justice for the sickness that they incurred while working in the mines,” the archbishop said in a statement.

“Very often workers do not have the means to seek legal recourse from large companies which have huge resources at their disposal,” Brislin added. “The Church is always concerned about the well-being of people with whom we work and live. It is thus incumbent on the Church to give assistance where it can so that the rights of the vulnerable are respected and so that they can access compensation that is legally due to them. Many companies are amenable to settling such cases, but in some instances court action is necessary.”

The application states that coal mine dust can lead to lung diseases, such as pneumoconiosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A person with COPD has breathing difficulties and airflow limitations. The application alleges that both diseases are preventable, but miners still contracted them because of inadequate procedures and protections. 

Coal miners who contracted either of these diseases after working in one of South32’s mines would receive payments. Dependents of coal miners who died from one of those illnesses would also receive compensation. The application covers actions from March 12, 1965, until the present.

South32 is a multibillion-dollar metal mining company based in Perth, Australia, that operates in six countries. It has three operations in South Africa. The mining industry employs about half a million people in South Africa and accounts for about 8% of the country’s gross domestic product.

A 65-year-old man who was diagnosed with lung disease after working in one of the mines from 1981 until 2016, Jan Nkosi, said in a statement that he experiences constant chest pain. 

“At night I have to sleep in a particular position to try to relieve the chest pain,” Nkosi, who is named in the application, added. “My coughing and wheezing sometimes wakes me up at night. When I walk quickly it feels like my chest is blocked, and I must stop and rest for a while. When I walk up an incline, I experience chest pain and can only walk very slowly. I often run out of breath.”

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for South32 confirmed with CNA that it has been served with an application for certification of a class action on behalf of mine workers in South Africa. The organization owned and operated South Africa Energy Coal from 2015 to 2021. 

“This matter is currently being considered by the business,” a spokesperson said. “We are unable to comment further at this point in time.”

A statement from the bishops cited the Catholic social teachings maintained in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum Novarum. The statement noted that “the Church has been close to the suffering of unskilled and vulnerable workers in the context of unbridled industrialization and its support for the coal mine workers is a concrete manifestation of its defense of the dignity of work which is a function of God’s creation.”

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