The national Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has reported at least 18 workers have died of work related causes over the past four years, and four women employees reported miscarriages in the past year. These concerns were further verified in 2007 when government inspectors called on Uranium One “to halt all mining operations” until minimum legal health and safety precautions could be met.
Workers claim that they have not had access to appropriate protective gear for handling radioactive materials, and that they are frequently ill but are denied proper treatment at an on-site clinic. Many employees are being diagnosed with tuberculosis, silicosis, cancer and asthma. Given this high incidence of illness, workers wonder why it is too much to ask for Uranium One to provide proper protective clothing so that they wouldn?t be just wearing regular coveralls to work. Employees are also concerned about the fact that they return home with these clothes and therefore are exposing their children and families to the radioactive dust from the mine.
Allegations of racism have been common at Dominion Reefs, where the workforce is reportedly made up of a minority of white staff working in higher-level positions, and a majority of black South Africans working underground as mine operators alongside underpaid temporary migrant labourers. As a minority population in the mine, women also report being harassed and ridiculed by the management and colleagues.
Silence Not An Option
In 2005, workers organized a committee to advocate for their rights as workers and as community members, but continued to be ignored by Uranium One. However, the committee was perceived as a legitimate representative body by broader civil society organizations, including COSATU, Jubilee South Africa, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, Khanya College, and the Coalition Against Nuclear Energy- South Africa.
Company Undertakes Mass Firings & Scales Back Operations
Uranium One failed to respond to multiple public actions organized to draw attention to the plight of workers and local communities. However, in mid-2008 committee representatives who had organized a public march were declared ?medically unfit? by company management and dismissed. Following months of failed negotiations, the Dominion Reefs miners made the collective decision in October 2008 to strike until their dismissed colleagues had been reinstated and working conditions had been improved. Within three days, 1400 employees had been fired. No one received notice or severance pay. Uranium One then announced that this site would be under ?care and maintenance? and soon thereafter, claimed they would either sell or close the mine property. Yet, mineral exploration in the name of Uranium One in the vicinity continues, and migrants have apparently been employed as a temporary replacement workforce.
Workers unequivocally refute that mining is providing economic benefits, instead asserting that Uranium One is killing “the environment, their communities and people”. Holding Uranium One accountable for the devastation resulting from the mine, workers say that any company operating there must pay a living wage, inform workers about the health risks of handling uranium, provide proper protective gear, and take responsibility for rehabilitating the land and communities they have contaminated.
Poisoned Communities Seek Dignity
In the squatter camps and townships situated within land leased by Uranium One for exploration and excavation, people are visibly affected by the radioactive dust, contaminated groundwater and soil. Entire families live in tin shacks amongst open mine shafts, sinkholes, mine tailings and heaps of garbage. There are no services for water or electricity, and few options for transport in and out of the settlement. Residents claim that the water from the one functioning community tap is often yellow and has a sickening odour as well as taste. Local farm produce also has high concentrations of heavy metals. Radioactive mine tailings dust has a suffocating effect. Children and elders have unidentified festering rashes, eye irritations, asthma, chronic headaches and nausea. Despite the fact that sinkholes and open shafts pose a specific danger to children, only a small number of warning signs have been erected in some residential areas.
Recently, a ten year-old boy slipped into a sinkhole and drowned in contaminated water, underlining the severity of this situation. His parents are requesting compensation, but have not received an acknowledgment?let alone an apology–from Uranium One. Now, families living in the midst of Uranium One?s mine and exploratory blasting are collectively raising their voices. They are demanding the company provide compensation and support their resettlement to an area uncontaminated by radioactive tailings.
Around the world, ordinary people took a principled position against apartheid in South Africa, standing in solidarity with activists demanding an end to the racial and economic injustices. Now instead of directing our efforts South, social, economic and environmental justice advocates in the townships of South Africa are asking the international community to look North and voice our concerns at the corporate headquarters of mining companies in downtown Toronto.
Final Words: Two Perspectives on Uranium One’s Operations
Tahlita, Community Organizer
“I am really concerned about the safety of our children and the problems from the water that is poisoned with radiation. The dust coming from the mine affects us all, as our eyes are pink or red, we are coughing all the time and have asthma. Since so many children are sick, few of them go to school regularly. When the rain comes, it makes our children even sicker. People are suffering from black rashes all over their bodies. The local water[from a borehole] is not alright?it is contaminated and the colour of it is yellow…
Our community is so dangerous, it is a disgrace. The open shafts and mine pits are not covered, and they get filled with toxic water. The mining company must cover that area and put up danger signs?.We don?t have electricity or water services, our houses are very cracked, and there are no jobs here. We want to work, but we want our health also.
The thing is–we are now living in poverty. After Uranium One has come here, the safety of our children, of our family, and of our community are all more at risk.
In the past, we had land for our children. But now the mine has taken our land, and we don?t have anything. We are suffering and need a proper place to live that does not have radiation like here?Then we can restart our lives, and there can be some justice.”
Dineo, Underground Mine Operator
“There is no safety at this mine. Most people are getting sick and dying. As a mine operator underground, the work is heavy and dangerous, but the masks we have do not provide the relevant protection, and our eyes are always paining. We are underpaid, and the company has unfair labour practices. If you are sick, the boss says you are abusing the sick leave, and the company nurse just gives out the same medication to everyone, and tells you to keep working… For 3 years, I have seen no progress in my life, and instead all I see is the company taking away my health and my life.
I need to have enough funds to take care of my family if one of them gets sick, and to pay for my child to go to school? How am I going to do this if we aren’t paid enough? [….] I am sick and tired of that place, where we are all underpaid and are ill from the contamination.
I am worried about the contamination here from the dust, which is very dangerous, and I don’t know about the water in our community, but I think it is dangerous too. If a Canadian company opens a mine here, they need to give people a living wage. They also have a responsibility to tell workers about the dangers of working with radiation, with uranium. It makes me angry that they didn’t even tell workers about this. At least the company must clean up the environment, as now they have contaminated our whole community.”