A female mine worker in South Africa operates machinery outside while smiling and looking off to the right

Three Ways COVID-19 Shows Vulnerable Workers Need Stronger Social Protections

The mining sector hasn't been spared from COVID-19; with sites closing and mobility restricted, the livelihoods of vulnerable workers are in jeopardy. What can governments and industry do to ensure no one is left behind when the next pandemic strikes? Let's take a look at the situation in South Africa and Mozambique. 

By Stacy Corneau, Isabelle Ramdoo on September 21, 2020

Although COVID-19 is a health pandemic, it has caused a social and economic crisis across the globe unlike anything seen in generations. Up to 340 million full-time workers across all economic sectors are expected to have lost their jobs by the end of 2020.

The mining sector hasn’t been spared. Mine sites have closed temporarily to protect workers’ health and safety. Employees have been laid off. Supply chains have slowed or halted production entirely.

But what does this mean for vulnerable workers?

Temporary, contractual, and migrant workers often don’t have the same protections as full-time employees. This is the case for vulnerable workers in Mozambique, who regularly travel to South Africa to work in gold and platinum mines.

South Africa is known for its gold, platinum, and diamond exports, and its mining sector has relied on labour from its neighbours—including Mozambique—for almost 150 years, with some workers travelling over 500 km to get to mine sites.

South Africa's mining sector has relied on labour from its neighbours—including Mozambique—for almost 150 years, with some workers travelling over 500 km to get to mine sites.

About 10% of South Africa’s 450,000-person mining workforce is made up of migrant workers from four neighbouring countries, including Mozambique, which provides roughly 24,000 workers to South African mines.

Mines across South Africa have seen the movements of goods and people restricted—both within the country and across its borders—because of COVID-19. This puts the livelihoods of vulnerable workers from neighbouring countries such as Mozambique at risk, meaning keeping a roof over their head and feeding their family just became that much more difficult. Despite easing lockdown measures in South Africa, only half of migrant workers from Mozambique have permission to resume working in the mines.

What can governments and industry do to ensure vulnerable workers aren’t left behind when the next pandemic strikes?

Miners mix cement with headlamps on while underground in a dark platinum mine
Workers at a platinum mine in South Africa mix cement to reinforce the ceiling and walls underground / iStock

Access to health care

Fleeing South Africa wasn’t the only difficulty facing vulnerable workers, since the conditions of returning to work also pose a challenge. Even once they return to the country, migrant workers like Mozambicans might not be able to access health care, social protection, and financial support from the government of South Africa.

We know of over 27 million cases and more than 900,000 people losing their lives to COVID-19 globally so far. This pandemic highlights the stark divide between those with and without access to medical care, whether it be financial or legal access. Governments should create stronger social protection schemes (such as universal health care), and mining companies should provide job-related health benefits for all their employees, with or without permanent contracts. Vulnerable workers would no longer fear lacking access to life-saving medical services or going into debt if they were sick.

Decent living wages

Vulnerable workers also need financial protection, which guaranteed decent minimum and livable wages would provide.

The hourly minimum wage in South Africa was increased by 3.8% to ZAR 20.76 (roughly USD 1.25) in March 2020. The previous increase had taken place more than two years prior. However, The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the Federation of Unions South Africa, and the National Council of Trade Unions don’t think this increase is enough. The unions were asking for a raise of at least 12.5%, which would be more in line with inflation.

It’s also important to know that minimum wages within South Africa can vary depending on the industry or geographic region. The minimum wage for domestic workers is ZAR 15.57 per hour, while farmworkers make ZAR 18.68 per hour, and contract cleaning staff make anywhere from ZAR 20.83 to ZAR 22.84 per hour.

Mining companies often will operate with subcontractors, who have fewer obligations than mining companies and may not uphold the same standards for social protection in contracts.

What does South Africa’s minimum wage have to do with temporary, contractual, and migrant workers from Mozambique? A lack of job security for these migrant workers means they are especially vulnerable to financial hardships. While mining companies should be adhering to the national minimum wage, many operate with subcontractors who employ vulnerable workers. Subcontractors have fewer obligations than mining companies and may not uphold the same standards for social protection in contracts.

Governments should establish livable, not just minimum, wages to ensure all workers are empowered financially. Mining companies should also improve security measures in vulnerable workers’ contracts to safeguard them against unforeseen circumstances and push for their subcontractors to do the same.

Training and upskilling

Governments and mining companies alike need to look at long-term solutions to foster resiliency and employability among vulnerable workers. They should be entitled to the same professional development, training, and upskilling opportunities as local or full-time employees.

However, training alone is not sufficient: what is necessary is the provision of transferable skills to help workers navigate transitions across sectors if mining jobs disappear, due to technological innovation or in times of global crisis, for example. Mining companies can allocate funds to support community trainings for future employment, not only in mines but other economic activities. This can also be done in partnership with those economic sectors and in line with national development plans to ensure workers find employment opportunities once trained.

Mining companies can also support governments in developing comprehensive skills strategies to address the vulnerabilities of the labour market and to ensure the adequacy of competencies with industrial needs.

COVID-19 has proven to be more than a health pandemic—it’s also a social and economic crisis. Mining companies, governments, and labour representatives need to work together to ensure vulnerable workers aren’t left behind now and help them strengthen their resilience in the event of future global crises.  

We invite you to dig deeper into this topic in our report, The Impact of COVID-19 on Employment in Mining.