S.Africa miners reach landmark silicosis settlement

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Johannesburg (AFP)

Thousands of miners in South Africa affected by silicosis from exposure to dust reached a breakthrough settlement worth $390 million with several mining companies on Thursday, their lawyers said.

The settlement will cover those who worked for the mining giants between March 1965 and the present day and will reportedly benefit up to 100,000 former mine workers or their dependents.

"This is an historic settlement, resulting from years of extensive negotiations," said a statement issued jointly by the miners' representatives and the affected companies.

"The agreement provides meaningful compensation to all eligible workers" who worked for African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye-Stillwater, it added.

It is the first class action settlement of its kind in South Africa and follows three years of negotiations.

Many miners caught silicosis, which has no known cure, while drilling through rock and inhaling silica dust that lodged in their lungs and caused permanent scarring.

Symptoms include persistent coughing and shortness of breath, and the disease regularly leads to tuberculosis and death.

The agreement must now be approved by the South Guateng High Court in Johannesburg.

- '5,000 have died' -

"The purpose was to hold the gold mining industry accountable for the enormous harm that it has inflicted on workers for years. The second objective was to bring a measure of redress for the families of miners and ex-miners," said lawyer Richard Spoor who headed the class action on behalf of the miners.

"It is the best we could achieve. We have not compromised. We have done the best we could possibly achieve."

Graham Briggs, who represents the Occupational Lung Disease Working Group which acted on behalf of six of the mining companies, said "a settlement is certainly preferable for several parties because it brings payment sooner than any class action".

"A settlement is preferable because it brings certainty," he added.

The joint statement said that six companies last year made financial provisions worth a total of 5 billion rand ($390 million) to cover the claims.

Spoor said that claimants could expect payments to begin in September or October which he said might be "disappointing for those who have waited so long".

"In the last five years, out of 35,000 clients that my firm has represented, approximately 5,000 have died. It puts tremendous pressure to settle," he said.

Some studies have found silicosis prevalence in South African gold mines at between 22 and 36 percent of all workers -- among the highest rates in the world.

In 2011, the Constitutional Court paved the way for the class action by ruling that mineworkers who had often accepted paltry compensation for their ill-health could still sue.