RYK VAN NIEKERK: In 2018 six mining groups made R5 billion available to settle claims against thousands of mine workers who contracted silicosis and tuberculosis in their mines. The R5 billion stems from an agreement between the mines and the workers after the workers launched a class-action suit. The Tshiamiso Trust was then set up to pay the R5 billion to sick miners; but to date only 102 of the more than 40 000 claims have been settled.
Richard Spoor is on the line. He is the lawyer who drove the class action suit on behalf of the miners. Richard, thank you so much for joining me. Are you still involved with this whole process?
RICHARD SPOOR: I am. I have been appointed by the court as the claimants’ agent, which means I have a responsibility to promote the interests of the claimants, and have a role to play when it comes to monitoring the trust and ensuring that it does in fact deliver on its mandate.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: I can appreciate that this process is complicated, but it seems that very few of the claims have been settled and of course time is of the essence, because many of those workers are very sick.
RICHARD SPOOR: That’s right. This matter has been going on since at least 2011, and even longer than that. It’s been 15 years since we began and during that time a very large number of workers have died. It’s really unfortunate that that’s continuing – that they continue to die before receiving their compensation. The only upside is that, since the establishment of the trust, workers with claims who’ve pass away, their families are not prejudiced in the sense that they receive the same benefit as the worker himself would have received.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: What has caused the delay? Why has it been so slow?
RICHARD SPOOR: It has related to the complexity of the trust deed and the settlement, and setting up the infrastructure and the systems that are required to process claims in line with the provisions of the trust deed.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Is that for administrative reasons?
RICHARD SPOOR: I think they are largely administrative, but they flow from the complexity of the deed itself and the nature of the challenge. With such large numbers of workers across the country systems had to be put in place to provide facilities where these workers can register their claims, where they can be medically examined, where their records are made available and where the trust can process the claims without contravening any of the provisions of the deed. All of that has taken a long time, and setting up the computer systems necessary to process this has been particularly challenging.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Are all of these things now in order? Would you be able to start to accelerate the payouts and the settlements in due course?
RICHARD SPOOR: I believe so. I’ll give you an example. There is a particular issue about the compensation of people with silico-tuberculosis in the provision of a trustee where there’s been a disagreement about precisely what it means. That issue has been addressed, it’s been resolved, but it requires an amendment to the trust deed. That will immediately unlock 500 claims that are sitting in the system.
We’re working on a daily basis with trying to unlock the disputes and the issues that arise. The companies on their side want to ensure strict compliance with the provisions of the trust and do adopt a very stringent, narrow approach. It’s up to the trustees and it’s up to us to find ways to ensure that, despite that, the process flows.
I think you can anticipate a much-improved flow of claims through the system and I’m fairly confident that in two or three months’ time you’re going to see a very, very different scenario.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: How many claims have been submitted to the trust?
RICHARD SPOOR: Well, our firm submitted 25 000, and of those 25 000 I think six have been compensated in this latest batch. So six out of 25 000 clients is what’s happened for us, which is clearly not satisfactory; but I’m hoping that it will get a lot better.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: ‘Not satisfactory’ is one way of putting it. But it’s such a dire situation, and one of the arguments you actually put forward during the class-action case was that these people are very, very sick; they need the money urgently. It just seems as if it is really, really unfortunate that the trust is taking so long to start paying out the amounts.
RICHARD SPOOR: What I can say is that the trustees are in charge of the process, and that they have been acting in good faith and doing a really good job. I think May Hermanus, the chairperson, has been fantastic. All the trustees nominated by us have really been working hard. Janet Love and Dr Sophia Kisting have been doing fabulous work. I understand from them that the companies represented in the trust have also been pulling their weight, and that there is a kind of joint commitment to ensure that the goodwill and the confidence created when this matter was settled is preserved. It’s in everybody’s interest to move it along.
I don’t doubt the trust is doing its best. Whether they’ve done it the most efficient and most effective way I’m not sure. Perhaps not. But the system and the approach that they have adopted, I think, will work over the longer term and I’m pretty confident that the trust will fulfil its mandate.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: I’ve seen that around 40 000 claims were submitted. Of course not all of those claims flow from your effort. But can mineworkers who are sick still register claims with the trust?
RICHARD SPOOR: Yes, they can. Every Teba office around southern Africa is a claims office. Then there are systems in place where they can lodge claims electronically, there are call centres that have been set up. People can call in at no cost to themselves, report their claims and steps will be taken to ensure that they are seen, that that information is taken from them, that they are living claimants, that they are medically examined and that their records are dug up to ensure that they get the benefits they are applying for.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Once the system is running on all six cylinders, how long would it take to settle a claim, or how complicated would it be to settle a claim?
RICHARD SPOOR: I’m not entirely sure, but what I can say is that if you have a look at the way that the MBOD, the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases, has done things, the average period it takes them to process a claim is three years. That’s the simpler, cleaner kind of process that we have. That is certainly not what we want to see and we’re going to do a helluva lot better than that. I’d like to see these claims taking a matter of weeks before they are settled, and I’m fairly confident that that can be achieved as the system begins to operate more efficiently and effectively.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Thank you, Richard. That was lawyer Richard Spoor.