BHP Billiton’s office in Johannesburg has become the site of frequent energized protests by labour, community, health and environmental rights activists. South African civil society groups have also nominated BHP Billiton as amongst the most consistent corporations committing environmental injustices in the country, particularly for a notorious record of neglecting the health and safety of workers. There are a number of coal, manganese and titanium mining operations which have claimed the lives of workers, contaminated air, soil and water upon which entire communities rely, and have displaced local populations. One particular case that has sparked discontent and anger amongst affected communities concerns a manganese alloy plant owned by BHP Billiton’s subsidiary, Samancor Manganese, operating in the Vaal Triangle in the Gauteng Province. Samancor’s production lines have enabled South Africa to become one of the world’s largest producers of manganese materials. However, this economic success has come at a tragic cost.

Samancor workers consistently report that information about the health and safety risks of handling manganese is not readily available to them. In 1999, medical tests were carried out on hundreds of Samancor workers. Most were found to be suffering from manganese poisoning, including neurological disorders, chronic dizziness, paralysis of limbs, kidney failure and cancer.

At the time, government agencies recommended that Samancor inform workers about their results. Refusing to do so, company representatives kept the medical records confidential and developed a proposal for a system of voluntary retrenchment for workers who were ill. When workers collectively rejected this offer, Samancor implemented forced retrenchments of 509 workers. In the meantime, sections of the medical report were leaked to the workers. In response, they formed the Samancor Retrenched Workers’ Crisis Committee (SRWCC) to serve as a platform to demand reasons for their retrenchment, access to medical documentation and compensation for their occupational illnesses. Today, the SRWCC acts as an advocacy group mobilizing for the rights of retrenched smelter workers and their families. Members also include current Samancor workers as well as widows of deceased workers, all of whom are concerned about their health, and that of their community.

According to Bafana, one of the coordinating community organizers in SRWCC, “We are openly fighting for Samancor to compensate us. Families are going hungry, and the children are either too sick or cannot afford to go to school, and people are dying. That is why we are still fighting.” From records compiled by the committee, it is apparent that more than 700 smelter workers have died over the last ten years from causes connected to the toxic manganese residues in the air, soil and water. Common problems include respiratory illnesses, cardiac arrest, brain haemhorrages, malignant tumours, pneumonia, meningitis, tuberculosis, limb paralysis and cancers of the lung, chest and liver.

Johannes, another key SRWCC organizer, explains that at a minimum, “Workers must be educated before we work at the plant. If we had known about the dangers of working at Samancor, I don’t think we would have agreed to work there for that long. Now we know that if you are exposed to manganese for more than eight years, it is fatal to your health. But we worked for many years, and the government and company kept quiet about these risks.” Due to being stricken by debilitating illnesses, former and current workers know they “will never be healthy enough to get a job anywhere else.”

SRWCC continues to demand BHP Billiton’s subsidiary:

  • publicly release complete results of medical examinations carried out on workers in 1999;
  • cover the health expenses of retrenched and currently employed workers;
  • pay living wages to workers;
  • provide decent compensation for retrenched workers;
  • compensate families of deceased workers;
  • allow working conditions to be inspected by the Ministry of Labour, Health and the Environment; and
  • disburse previously promised subsidies for housing loans.

Based on these concerns, the SWRCC is calling on Samancor to undertake negotiations with them. At the time of writing, Samancor representatives had not agreed to engage in discussions with members of the SWRCC.   Now past and present Samancor workers are seeking to intensify pressure on the company. Articulating their plans for future strategic mobilization, Bafana and Johannes explain, “We are taking the company to the courts, we are liaising with workers at other company plants, and we also want to engage people from outside this country to let them know about what is going on here. We need their support.”