Johannesburg, South Africa-Last month South African mineworker, community and environmental justice activists celebrated an important victory. On January 23, the South African Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) granted an arbitration award in favour of workers from Dominion Reefs Uranium mine, owned and operated by Toronto-based company Uranium One. Significantly, this case affirms Uranium One’s responsibility for systematic violations of the workers’ rights. Representatives from Uranium One’s headquarters in Johannesburg and Toronto were contacted but declined to respond.
Located approximately 150 km southwest of Johannesburg in the Klerksdorp municipality, Dominion Reefs was ‘mothballed’ last October by Uranium One after workers had gone on strike for improved working conditions.
At the time, Uranium One declared it would be seeking to close or sell the mine. Prior to these announcements, the mine had employed residents from squatter camps and townships surrounding the mine as well as temporary migrants from Mozambique and Lesotho. Now, a minimal temporary workforce of allegedly underpaid migrant workers has been hired to keep the mine in a functioning state. Meanwhile, South African environmental, labour and human rights organizations remain outraged at the devastation caused by this mining operation.
Deadly working conditions
According to the Confederation of South African National Congress (COSATU), since 2004, at least 18 workers have died of work related causes, and over the last year, four women employees reported miscarriages. Workers claim they have not had access to appropriate protective gear for handling radioactive materials, and that they are frequently ill but are denied proper treatment at an on-site clinic.
A designated worker representative, Daniel, testified that his colleagues wonder why it was too much to ask for Uranium One to provide proper protective clothing so that they wouldn’t be just wearing regular overalls to work. According to him, many employees are being diagnosed with tuberculosis, silicosis, cancer and asthma, and have chronic headaches, nausea, tingling limbs and dizziness spells. He explained that, “At the Uranium One clinic, if you report a problem, the nurse will give you Panadol [paracetamol], and tell you to go back to work. Management doesn’t ever believe you are sick. First, someone has to die before they might believe there is in fact a problem.”
In November 2007, government inspectors called on Uranium One “to halt all mining operations” until minimum legal health and safety precautions could be met. Public records from this time reveal a number of serious regulatory infractions including observations that there were excessive diesel fumes underground, “loose dangerous rocks” not barred down, that miners and supervisors lacked knowledge about basic health and safety standards, and that Uranium One had been making “declarations of unsafe working places to be safe.”
Another outspoken worker advocate, Tebogo, drew connections between workers’ health and that of families in the nearby township of Jouberton. “My child is always crying about stomach pains. I think it is because the [borehole] water we drink has been poisoned from the mine, but besides this, the clothes I wear in the mine are the same as the clothes I wear home. So the children are affected that way too.”
Apartheid on the job?
Allegations of racism have been common at Dominion Reefs, where the workforce is reportedly made up of a minority of white staff working in high-level positions, and a majority of black South Africans working underground as mine operators alongside underpaid temporary migrant labourers from Mozambique and Lesotho. With the management able to threaten to replace South Africans with a cheaper and more compliant migrant labour pool, racialized divisions between the underground workers have been exacerbated. As a minority population in the mine, women workers report harassment by colleagues and supervisors.
According to Dineo, one of the few women who worked underground at Dominion Reefs, “If a Canadian company opens a mine here, they need to give people a living wage. They also have a responsibility to tell workers about the dangers of working with radiation; with uranium. It makes me angry that they didn’t even tell workers about this. At least the company must clean up the environment, as now they have contaminated in our whole community.”
Workers organize, company responds with mass firing
To advocate for their rights collectively, workers organized a committee with democratically elected spokespeople, which came to be seen as a legitimate representative body by broader civil society organizations, including COSATU, Jubilee South Africa and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment.
Their demands for respect, improved health and safety conditions as well as a living wage were ignored by Uranium One until August 2008, when worker representatives who had organized a public march were declared “medically unfit” by company management and dismissed. When negotiations failed to resolve the issue, the Dominion Reefs miners decided in October 2008 to strike until their dismissed colleagues had been reinstated and working conditions had been improved. Uranium One promptly responded by firing all 1400 workers.
Workers unequivocally refute the notion that mining is economically benefiting their communities. Daniel asserted that, “This mine has created poverty. Uranium One is stealing our minerals. As workers and as the community, we don’t want any Canadian mining company here killing our brothers and sisters.”
Canada firm ‘has taken our land and contaminated our water’
In the squatter camps and townships situated within and adjacent to Uranium One’s property, families live in tin shacks amongst open mine shafts, sinkholes, mine tailings and mounds of rotting garbage. Discussing the community’s sense of dispossession, Tahlita, a community organizer from the local group “Justice and Peace,” stated, “We don’t have electricity or water services, our houses are very cracked, and there are no jobs here. We want work, but we want our health also. In the past, we had land for our children. Now we don’t have anything. The mine has taken our land and contaminated our water.”
The trickle of water from the one functioning tap in the community has a distinct yellow tinge and sickening odour. Meanwhile, the suffocating effects of radioactive tailings dust blowing across the 14, 000 hectare area leased by Uranium One are exacerbated during the frequent exploratory mine blasting being conducted by Uranium One’s subcontractors. Eye irritations and severe cases of asthma are common amongst children and adults and many have festering rashes discolouring their entire bodies.
Despite the fact that sinkholes and open shafts pose a specific danger to children, Uranium One has done nothing more than erect a small number of warning signs in some residential areas. Parental concerns about this situation became a heart wrenching reality in November 2008 when a ten year old boy, known in the community for his creative dance and musical skills as well as good academic achievements, slipped accidentally into an open mine pit filled with radioactive waste water and drowned. Now an outspoken critic of the mine, this boy’s mother declared, “For the sake of our children and the future, they [Uranium One] must close up all the pits in the area, cover up the places where dangerous materials are, and clean up the entire area so that it is a proper living place for a community.”
Your pension dollars at work
A fellow community organizer from Justice and Peace, Lesago, explained, “Uranium One needs to resettle the entire community to a place where we can at least start our lives again. Our lives are in danger as the water and vegetables here are not suitable for our health [due to heavy metal contamination]….” Gesturing towards piles of garbage and mine tailings beside a grouping of dilapidated houses, Lesago affirmed, “When you see this injustice, you have to react; you have to make your voice heard. As a parent, I am doing this work for my child’s sake and for everyone’s children here.”
Uranium One’s Dominion Reefs operations have been made possible with backing from the Canadian Embassy and Canadian International Development Agency in South Africa, which have both identified mineral extraction as an investment sector priority.
Ordinary Canadians contributing to the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) also unknowingly are implicated in perpetuating this disaster, as the CPP invests millions of dollars annually into Uranium One.
In the past, Canadians took a principled stand against apartheid in South Africa. Now instead of directing our efforts towards a distant regime, South African social movements are calling on us to look closer to home — the board rooms of mining companies on Toronto’s Bay Street.
Tanya Roberts-Davis is currently working with the International Women and Mining Network on a publication profiling women’s experiences from communities impacted by and resisting mining operations. When at home in Toronto, she is involved in collectives organizing with im/migrant, worker, First Nations and Palestinian communities.