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In South Africa, thousands of current and former miners are asking the country's High Court for the right to proceed with a class action lawsuit. They want to sue the country's largest gold mining companies for failing to protect their health. And this would be the biggest class action ever brought in South Africa. NPR's Jennifer Schmidt reports.
JENNIFER SCHMIDT, BYLINE: South African miners have some of the highest rates of silicosis in the world. It's an incurable lung disease caused by silica dust. In the mines, it occurs during blasting. Siporono Phahlam knows the impact firsthand. For 32 years, he worked in a gold mine owned by mining giant Anglo American. But when he was 51, he failed the mine's annual medical exam. Phahlam says he was told he had silicosis and should leave.
SIPORONO PHAHLAM: They say that I am sick. They say a person, they have silicosis, he can never work anymore at the mine.
SCHMIDT: Phahlam says the mine as good as killed him. But he never received any compensation.
PHAHLAM: They did not give me nothing. I did not getting anything.
SCHMIDT: Phahlam is one of thousands of miners, and the widows of miners, who want compensation. Richard Spoor is an attorney representing some of them.
RICHARD SPOOR: It was cheaper for the gold mining industry to cripple and maim workers by exposing them to excessive levels of dust than it was to take steps to protect their health.
SCHMIDT: Spoor says while the South African government looked the other way, miners were used and discarded like machinery.
SPOOR: This is likely the biggest ongoing industrial disaster of modern history, where literally hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of men, have contracted this disease and died the last hundred years.
SCHMIDT: And for much of that time, Spoor points out, South Africa was governed by a white minority under the apartheid system.
SPOOR: So the whole system of apartheid, which really entailed setting up labor reserves from which miners could be recruited and come and work in the gold mines and then be sent back, was all about providing a cheap source of labor to the mines.
SCHMIDT: The mining industry acknowledges that wrongs were done in the past but says things are improving. It used to take an average of seven years for a worker to fall ill during the apartheid era, now it takes about 20. And while the mining industry is fighting the case in court, behind the scenes it's showing a willingness to compromise over a legal issue that's dragged on for a decade. The industry and attorneys for the miners are currently deep in negotiations over the terms of a trust fund for the miners. Alan Fine is a spokesman for seven major gold mining companies involved in the talks.
ALAN FINE: When the companies got together to begin this initiative, it was with recognition that there is a legacy that needs to be dealt with and put right as far as is possible.
SCHMIDT: The gold mining industry in South Africa is in turmoil, facing rising costs and low prices. And miners from the old apartheid era are dying. Attorney Richard Spoor says in the end, a compromise may be the best chance for sick miners to receive some kind of reparation.
SPOOR: It's not about achieving justice. Too much has happened for us to imagine that we could right the wrongs of the past. But we can do something for those who are still alive.
SCHMIDT: A decision in the case is expected by January. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Schmidt.
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