After suffering decades, stricken South African miners get their shot at justice with landmark ruling: Mine workers accused the mining companies of deliberately delaying their case with legal obstacles – an allegation that is “cause for disquiet,” the court said.

How many class actions by workers and families harmed by fracing will there be against oil and gas companies and their enabling regulators, env NGOs, experts and politicians?

Stricken South African miners get their shot at justice with landmark ruling by Geoffrey York, May 13, 2016, The Globe and Mail

Two decades after losing his mining job when he fell sick from tuberculosis, Vuyani Dwadube will finally have a chance at justice.

Mr. Dwadube, a former rock driller who still suffers breathing difficulties from his 16 years in an underground gold mine, is one of an estimated 500,000 mine workers, ex-miners and their families who could benefit from a class-action suit approved on Friday – the biggest such case in South African history.

In a landmark ruling, a court in Johannesburg said the class-action suit can proceed. The suit could force 32 gold-mining companies to pay millions of dollars in damages to thousands of miners who have waited decades for proper compensation for their debilitating illnesses of silicosis and tuberculosis.

For more than a century, South Africa was the world’s biggest gold producer, earning vast wealth from the dangerous labour of the underground workers. But the mining companies may have deliberately neglected the illnesses of their workers, the court said.

“I’m very happy with this judgment,” said Mr. Dwadube, 74, who listened quietly from a back bench in the courtroom. He and other former miners walked out of the court building with their fists raised in victory, while supporters sang and danced on the street outside.

“We’ve been suffering for a long time, and that’s why it’s so important to us,” he said. “The judgment gives us the right to stand up in court and get our rights. Now we are free to go and tell others. We will come in our numbers to get access to the justice that we were denied for so long.”

The court cited testimony by former miners about their “Victorian” working conditions and widespread abuses by their employers, including shocking cases of mining companies giving them ineffective masks and telling them to wear the masks only when inspectors were visiting.

“With remarkable consistency, their evidence reveals that the mining companies stripped them of their dignity, and concomitantly compromised their health and safety, with such intensity and ferocity that they were effectively dehumanized,” the judgment said.

Silicosis, a debilitating and incurable lung disease caused by silica dust in gold mines, has been the subject of repeated South African government inquiries since 1902, yet little was done to prevent it or the diseases associated with it, such as tuberculosis.

The mine workers had made a “prima facie case” that the mining companies had violated their legal rights, the court said. Yet most of them are too poor or too sick to pursue individual lawsuits. Many were migrant workers from Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland or rural South Africa, and cannot afford the cost of travelling to court.

“The vast majority of them who cannot sue individually would have to live with the fact that the law, with all its promises, affords them no remedy for the pain and suffering endured while battling the growth of fibrotic forests in their ever-depleting lungs,” the court said.

“The only way justice can prevail in the cases of the individual mine workers or their dependents is if they are afforded an opportunity to pursue their claims by having at least significant parts of it determined through a class action.”

Hundreds of thousands of mine workers are believed to have contracted silicosis, yet many died without compensation. Even among a group of 24 plaintiffs in the current case, at least eight have already died. Mine workers accused the mining companies of deliberately delaying their case with legal obstacles – an allegation that is “cause for disquiet,” the court said.

“It was really hurtful that the employers didn’t want this case to go ahead,” Mr. Dwadube said. “But the way the judges intervened gives me great comfort.”

The mining companies haven’t said whether they will appeal the decision. But the mine workers and their supporters said it was a huge victory.

“It’s an extremely historic day for gold-mine workers, on whose back this country’s wealth was built,” said Charles Abrahams, a lawyer for the mine workers.

“For generations, gold-mine workers have languished in mines, and their plight was never appreciated. Today a court in this country has recognized that the plight of mine workers finally needs to be brought to the fore.”

The judgment “sends a very important signal to mining companies, and potentially other industries, that the courts are very serious about our constitutional democracy and protecting the rights of the most vulnerable,” Mr. Abrahams said.

“We trust the mining companies will take heed. This could potentially lead to a resolution so that no more mine workers have to die.”

The Treatment Action Campaign, a civil society group that supports the mine workers, said the judgment has “far-reaching implications” because it will make it easier for poor or vulnerable groups to “challenge the powerful” with class-action suits.

“For over 100 years the mining companies have simply allowed their employees to get sick with silicosis and tuberculosis,” said a statement by TAC general secretary Anele Yawa.

“They knew how to protect their workers, but they chose not to do so. This judgment says to those companies that apartheid is over. Under the constitution, you will no longer get away with treating your workers as if they are not human beings.”

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