Sick Swazi ex-miners seek compensation from S.Africa
Ex-migrant miner afflicted with debilitating lung disease wants money to support his family
Patrick Gwebu says, “They told me that they won’t pay me alive for silicosis, but only when I’m dead.” His tone painted a picture of a man full of despair and bitterness, seeing the future of his wife and eight children slipping right out of his fingers.
Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, usually by workers exposed to silica dust in occupations such as mining, glass manufacturing, and foundry work, according to the American Lung Association. Exposure to silica particles over time causes scarring of the lungs, harming the ability to breathe.
Gwebu used to work as a miner at Sibanye Gold in South Africa.
He is one of thousands of migrant workers fromSwaziland, a small landlocked nation of about 1.2 million people bordered on three sides by South Africa, who left behind the comfort of their families to travel over 400 kilometers (250 miles) to work in Johannesburg’s gold mines.
His chest has periodic seizures, causing breathing problems. In an effort to make ends meet, he runs a small grocery store with his wife Lindiwe at Hlatikulu in southern Swaziland.
While still working in the mines in 2005, he was diagnosed by the Medical Bureau of Occupational Diseases (BOD) with tuberculosis (TB). Ten years later, in 2015, he became seriously ill, and the company relieved him of his duties after discovering silicosis in his lungs.
He approached the Compensation Commission for Occupational Diseases (CCOD), part of South Africa’s Health Department, to get money to start a small business just to put food on the table, but he was clueless about the amount he was claiming.
'Not even a cent'
“At first the compensation commission looked cooperative. It looked like I would get my money in a stroke of a pen. It was promising. They took my fingerprints and assured me that in three months the money would be deposited in my account, said Gwebu.
“It’s a year now and I haven’t gotten even a cent. Besides the silicosis compensation they said would be paid my family when I’m dead, I haven’t been paid even for TB,” he complained.
In a recent media statement on the benefits problem released by the Department of Social Protection Benefits for Ex-Mineworkers, South Africa’s deputy minister of mineral resources and social protection, Godfrey Oliphant, said the department has some $2.1 billion in unclaimed benefits, a great deal of it for migrant ex-mineworkers who have not accessed these funds.
“These are substantial sums that would do a lot to rejuvenate rural economies and labor-sending areas where the mineworkers come from – within South Africa and in neighboring countries,” like Swaziland, said Oliphant.
He added, “Our lessons from that activity have shown that the majority of ex-mineworkers are in rural villages and have little knowledge about their benefits. Where they have knowledge, it is virtually impossible to access their benefits owing to multiple barriers.”
Vama Jele, head of the Swaziland Migrant Mineworkers Association (SWAMMIWA), said the compensation commission has an apathetic attitude towards fast-tracking payments as well as a poor record system and a laborious application process which exhausts the limited resources clients have.
“There is a lack of commitment by CCOD to unlock this compensation. There are lots of forms that have to be completed by claimants,” Jele said.
He said CCOD was wrong to tell Gwebu that he would be posthumously. He said compensation should take place in the shortest time possible.
“The payment depends on the severity of the disease, whether is it first-degree or second-degree silicosis. Currently TB is compensable but paid for loss of earnings during the treatment management phase.
“Because TB or silicosis is occupational based, it must have a continual medical coverage and clients shouldn’t be neglected. The sickness grows worse in winter because they need more oxygen. At times they feel their breathing is blocked,” he said.
However, Dr. Barry Kistnasamy, head of the compensation commission, said the lengthy process owes to the lack of a proper database of ex-miners because some claims goes back to the 1990s and many lack up-to-date contact details and addresses. Missing information in the claimant files such as addresses, ID numbers, passport numbers, fingerprints, record of service at a mine, and bank accounts exacerbate the problem.
Saying that it is incorrect that miners with silicosis are compensated posthumously, he said the post-mortems assist in giving a definite diagnosis of a compensable lung disease if it exists, if the ex-miner died without a medical record.
“The ex-miner may not have had the medical examinations when alive owing to lack of access to services. The beneficiaries are paid the monies provided that the ex-miner had a compensable disease even if the ex-miner has died,” he said.
Kistnasamy said their annual performance plan for 2016-17 is working towards a three-month period for examination and diagnosis, provided all documents are in the file. The CCOD has instituted an internal tracking system to monitor claims’ process and management which should be operational by October, he said.
“The Global Fund for AIDS, TB, and malaria is building One-Stop centers in Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Swaziland that will assist in improved service delivery for ex-miners. These centers should be operational by April 2017,” explained Kistnasamy.
Jele said about $647,000 in compensation is “held captive” at the CCOD, resulting in about 1,800 Swazis being mired in poverty.
He explained, however, that the World Bank and Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) are supporting the tracking process to cut the red tape delaying the disbursement of compensation.
He said their mother body, the Southern Africa Miners Association (SAMA), as well as the Regional Coordination Mechanism (RCM), the World Bank, and other partners have secured funding amounting to $30 million from the Global Fund for Healthcare, a partnership organization founded in 2002.
The funding will provide for miners and ex-miners mandatory benefit examinations and improved cross-border referrals.
However, Jele said there is light at the of the tunnel for current and ex-miners because the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Labor Ministers this May endorsed the portability of social service benefits,
“As worker organizations, we have to advocate and push governments to start implementing the instruments. The SADC code deals with labor migration and migrant employment. It facilitates labor migration across borders and treats migrant workers and nationals equally,” he added.