REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG -- Johannesburg, known as the city of gold, is also the city of silicosis -- where thousands of former gold miners were allegedly deprived of health checks for the potentially fatal disease, according to a lawyer.
Attorney Richard Meeran of the London law firm Leigh Day said Thursday he has taken legal action in a British court against Anglo American South Africa on behalf of hundreds of chronically ill former miners who contracted the lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust.
"At the moment there are 700 people in [the action] but the number is constantly increasing. We are taking instructions from people all over South Africa," he said in a telephone interview.
Meeran said thousands of former miners were denied compensation because when they left their jobs, their employers allegedly washed their hands of them. In the impoverished Eastern Cape, where many South African miners are from, he said there were no facilities to provide the health checks they were entitled to receive every three years, a prerequisite to get a standard industry compensation package for those diagnosed with silicosis.
"The result is that thousands of people must have been deprived of compensation and many would have died without getting compensation," Meeran told the Times.
Meeran said the standard compensation package was much lower than ex-miners were likely to get if they sued. According to his law firm, their claims could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Anglo American South Africa could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday, but has previously said the claims are unfounded.
Silicosis is an incurable disease that scars the lungs but takes decades to develop. South Africa's National Institute for Occupational Health reported in 2008 that the silicosis rate at South African gold mines in 2006 was more than 30%.
However, rates have fallen with improved ventilation and other techniques, such as wet drilling. In 2009, Harmony, one of the world's 10 largest gold mining companies, reported 808 new silicosis cases, a rate of 17 cases per 1000 workers.
Meeran argues black miners for decades were given the dirtiest and dustiest jobs, worked without respirators and were denied the showers that were provided to white mine workers. In an article in a South African newspaper last year, Meeran quoted an occupational health specialist, professor Tony Davies, as describing the situation as a "river of disease flowing out of South African mines."
Meeran launched legal action in the South African courts in 2004, a case that is expected to be heard next year. When he filed the case in London in September, he said it would offer speedier justice to the miners.
Under British law, a case can be mounted there because the company is a fully owned subsidiary of Anglo American, one of the world's largest mining companies, listed on the London stock exchange.
Anglo American South Africa no longer mines gold, as many of the country's mines are running out of the precious metal. But it was one of South Africa's biggest gold miners for many years last century.
Meeran said the best way to resolve the claims was through a compensation fund, paying different amounts to silicosis sufferers depending on the severity of their condition and their age.
The South African department of labor last week announced it would check on companies to ensure they were meeting their legal obligations, including providing health checks to current workers.
"One of the areas of concern that the department will focus on is the industry where employees are exposed to harmful substances like silica dust which causes silicosis that ravages the lungs of those who have come into contact on a sustained basis," the department said in a statement.
-- Robyn Dixon