YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Mining companies in South Africa are being called on to compensate miners suffering from mining-related illnesses by the country’s bishops.

Bishop Abel Gabuza, Bishop of Kimberly and President of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference said workers in the industry are more likely to suffer from a variety of ailments.

He said coal miners suffer from CWP (Coalworker’s pneumoconiosis or Black Lung Disease); Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, including emphysema and bronchitis); work-aggravated asthma; progressive systematic sclerosis (PSS) and pulmonary tuberculosis.

“All of these lung diseases are incurable except for pulmonary tuberculosis,” he said.

“Silicosis is more prevalent than CWP and studies suggest that silicosis sufferers die at a rate of 4 percent every year from the disease,” the bishop told Crux.

Silicosis is caused by the inhalation of the crystalline silica dust produced in the mining environment.

“Some of the deaths are not always recorded because the miner may take their own life out of depression or to alleviate the burden they place on their families, and some die as a result of their substance abuse trying to cope with their new situation,” Gabuza said.

The bishop noted that PSS can be triggered by a single speck of dust: It is a genetic disease which affects a small number of people, usually without their knowledge.

“It is an autoimmune disease that has a devastating effect and leads to most unpleasant suffering and death. The cleanest mine in the world could still cause PSS,” he said.

Gabuza said such diseases have severe impact not only on the sick, but also on their families.

“Some miners will cope with the disease and it will be reduced to a discomfort. Other miners will be restricted to their beds for the rest of their lives, unable to even dress themselves unassisted. The High Court in the Nkala certification judgment acknowledged that the impairment upon these miners from occupational lung diseases causes additional re-enforcement of women’s poverty, because wives and daughters must stay home and care for their husbands and fathers, sometimes dropping out of school in order to do so. These diseases therefore affect not only the miners themselves but the mining communities in which they live as well,” the bishop said.

Speaking to Fides, the bishop added that “for decades, coal mining companies allowed their workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of coal dust. The mines need to take both ethical and legal responsibility for the sick miners.”

“The fact that South Africa has hundreds of sick miners from coal industry is an indictment on corporate greed in the mining sector and its insistence on profit over the dignity of mine workers,” said Gabuza. “Most of the miners who become sick were sent home with little or no compensation after working in mines that have generated millions of Rands for their shareholders.”

The mining industry employs nearly half-a-million people in South Africa and has long been one of the most important economic sectors in the country.

But miners have long complained about poor pay and working conditions which can affect their health.

Gabuza said the bishops want the government to abide by the rules laid down in the 1978 “Under the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act (ODMWA)” which mandates sick miners are entitled to a lump sum payment depending on the severity of their condition.

“This is calculated by their lung function results, and a miner that a doctor would regard as sick may still not qualify for compensation if their lung function is not severe enough,” the bishop said.

He said each miner would receive different compensation in a courtroom setting, based on their age, previous earnings and disease severity, but indicated that the Church and other bodies fighting for compensation want miners to be able to claim for two types of damages, namely, “loss of earnings until retirement” and “future medical expenses.”

He explained that the general damages are largely dependent upon the view of the courts, and “it will depend upon whether the judge regards a particular case as worse, better or eventually different.”

“Ordinarily though, it is preferable to settle on a discount to the mining companies rather than engage with them over years and possibly decades of courtroom litigation until a final award is made and money actually transferred to the claimant,” he told Crux.

“Many claimants may die before a trial judgment is finally made, and therefore it is frequently in the interests of everyone that a settlement is achieved even though a lesser amount is agreed to. The lawyers also don’t want to charge more fees from the claimants simply because it is taking longer to arrive upon a final judgment, it is best to end things sooner rather than continue with costly litigation. To this extent compensation will also be determined by the socio-economic realties of the case and the claimants,” the bishop said.