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KAI RYSSDAL: There’s a nationwide miners strike set for next Tuesday in South Africa. A quarter of a million miners are set to walk off the job to call attention to poor safety conditions. Mining has been part of the South African fabric for a more than a century now. But Gretchen Wilson reports from Johannesburg, little attention has been paid to the human costs.
GRETCHEN WILSON: Mining is critical to South Africa’s economy and that’s evident on this city’s streets. Public squares here showcase mine shafts and rock crushers from the 1880s gold rush. So South Africans are constantly reminded of one of their core industries.
PERSON ON STREET: Take for instance if there is an incident in a mine, in a certain mine — almost everyone in the morning would be having the news, because a lot of families are involved.
Last week, four miners were killed in three different accidents. That makes a 191 people killed in mining accidents here this year. Lesiba Seshoka of the National Union of Mineworkers says these are preventable deaths, and he says that’s why miners will refuse to work.
LESIBA SESHOKA: Our members felt, “Look, there’s a need for a strike to say to the companies that enough is enough when it comes to safety. We need to be safe.”
As gold prices trade at near $800 an ounce, miners have to go deeper and deeper to get it. For a few hundred dollars a month, blasters and drillers work more than two miles underground in temperatures above 100 degrees. Miners are willing to put up with the heat, but they’re demanding that all workers be given the right safety equipment, such as hard hats, gloves, and lights.
SESHOKA: We have seen that when platinum prices go up, and the gold prices go up, a lot of people are just hired — taken from the street without enough training and enough equipment — and taken underground, where they eventually die.
Most accidents are a result of tremors, mudslides, and explosions. Workers want the mines to invest in better technology to monitor seismic shifts underground. They’re also demanding better maintenance.
In October, a 50-foot pipe broke and fell, badly damaging a mine shaft. It trapped 3,200 people underground for nearly two days.
JABU MAPHALALA: They all came out alive. That is an example of the high safety standards that are employed by South African mines.
Jabu Maphalala is with the lobbying group for South Africa’s mining industry, the Chamber of Mines. He says the sector’s committed to reaching international safety standards — like those in the U.S., Canada and Australia — by 2013. But he admits there’s still a ways to go.
MAPHALALA: The numbers are very high, I agree. But all I can say is that efforts are being made, all the time, to minimize fatalities in the mines.
The government’s conducting a safety audit of all 600 mines in the country. The next step is to prioritize which safety improvements to make first. The union sees this as a step in the right direction, and this makes the strike mostly symbolic, building awareness among workers, who’ll give up a day’s pay.
But the union will step up the pressure if companies don’t respond.
SESHOKA: They are not going to be successful in maintaining the status quo. We are going to stop them on their tracks. And if it means we will have to strike for the whole year, we will do it.
The mining industry’s already lost more than $700 million this year in safety-related shutdowns, following accidents or deaths on their mines. So the companies themselves support the strike, if it means fewer casualties in the future.
In Johannesburg, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.