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Sickened South African Mine Workers Seek Justice in Courts

2:27 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

South Africa’s mining industry has been plastered across international headlines in recent days following the massacre of 34 protesting platinum mine workers in Marikana. This week, thousands of striking workers marched to protest the assault on labor rights and economic security by both the police and corporations.

But while the media’s gaze has fixed on roiling unrest at Lonmin, the more insidious crisis of safety conditions in the mines remains mostly buried below the surface. Over the years, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workers have been gradually sickened or killed by an epidemic that has largely gone ignored by the industry and the post-Apartheid government.

But now, some workers are resisting injustice in the mines by going to court, with a group of lawsuits alleging that three gold mining companies sickened many employees with toxic exposures that are tied to “varying degrees of silicosis”–a disease that causes chronic breathing problems–as well as tuberculosis and lung cancer. Read the rest of this entry →

Two Years After Fatal Disaster, Push to Protect Coal Miners Wears On

6:35 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Upper Big Branch memorial (Photo via ubbminersmemorial on Facebook)

Originally posted on In These Times

In late July, a somber crowd gathered before a long granite wall etched with the rough silhouettes of men standing against jagged mountain peaks. They represented the 29 miners who died in an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia in 2010. The disaster initially jolted lawmakers to investigate safety conditions in mines, but today, King Coal still rules both in Appalachia and on Capitol Hill.

But some hope to chip away at the industry’s impunity by reforming the lax regulatory system. A new bill, introduced by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), would impose stronger penalties on mine operators that knowingly cause or maintain safety problems like those that at Upper Big Branch. The legislation would also beef up the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) investigative powers.

According to a summary of the bill, companies that violate safety rules would face heavier punishment, including criminal penalties. One provision, which responds to reports that Massey had illegally manipulated its ventilation systems, would impose fines of more than $200,000 for unauthorized ventilation changes, which could “lessen clean air flow in the mines and increase the likelihood of explosions.”

The bill would give MSHA new subpoena power to probe witnesses and other evidence, such as safety records, during investigations. Another measure would explicitly bar companies from “Keeping Two Sets of Books”–a tactic mine operators may use to conceal unsafe conditions from regulators. Read the rest of this entry →

Embarrassment of Riches: Conflict Diamond Regulation Breaks Down

6:52 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Men mine for diamonds in Sierra Leone. (Photo by L. Lartigue via USAID)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The holiday season is a time of material pleasures, but it’s also a time to take stock of how our social values tend to be at odds with the objects we most prize.

While countless American shoppers splurge this month–probably to delude ourselves momentarily that we can still afford to indulge—the social cost of one luxury item has exposed a global crisis. The human rights group Global Witness has abandoned the Kimberly Process, the international regulatory framework aimed at restricting trafficking in “conflict diamonds.” The group argues that the process, which it helped create, is broken and ridden with loopholes.

Global Witness’ withdrawal points to a problem that can’t be regulated away by corporate pledges. It’s not the diamonds, but the global economic role of the mining industries, enslaving poor nations to mineral monoculture. Aside from funneling money into conflicts in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, diamonds reflect an economic tragedy that puts Global South communities at the mercy of both local despots and a global lust for beauty.

The catch phrase “blood diamond” doesn’t tell the whole story of injustices embedded in the world’s mines, which systematically devalue the lives of the the men, women and children in the pursuit of the earth’s riches.

Children have historically made up a large portion of the conflict diamond workforce, under a system that makes full use of their small bodies. In Sierra Leone, according to a report by Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic, “Beginning as early as ten years of age, child miners perform backbreaking labour under poor conditions where they receive little compensation for their efforts.” In addition to lost access to education and poverty, children interviewed for the study:

complained of body and headaches, worms, malaria and other disease; adult diggers described the dangers posed to child miners from collapsing mining pits. These conditions constitute hazardous work and violate prohibitions on child labour.

Since the industry also employs many traumatized young survivors of the civil war, labor abuses hinder Sierra Leone’s ongoing struggle for “the rehabilitation and social reintegration of children affected by armed conflict.” Read the rest of this entry →

Mine Workers Struggle for Safety Underground, Justice in the Streets

1:55 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

 

National Union of Mineworkers protest (libcom.org)

Cross-posted from In These Times
 

As thousands take to the streets to protest global corporate domination, the power struggles just below the earth’s surface remain outside the media spotlight. But over the past few weeks, turmoil in the mining industry has also spoken to the divide between the corporate elite and the impoverished multitudes–a faultline running through communities mired in poverty but rich in resources.

Papua’s gold battleground

In Papua, Indonesia, the American gold and copper giant Freeport McMoRan
had to shut down a facility on Monday after protesting workers set up roadblocks. The standoff at Grasberg followed a recent deadly clash between protesters and police—the culmination of an earlier strike that turned out thousands of workers demanding major wage increases. Read the rest of this entry →