HomeBattery metalsHow can working environments in the ASM sector be improved?

How can working environments in the ASM sector be improved?

AUTHOR: Selina Zhuwarara, principal consultant at Autem Mining

Artisanal and small scale (ASM) mining has become an integral part of the development of the mining industry across Africa.

It is trite that the sector has grown over the years and is becoming a permanent fixture in discussions relating to minerals supply management, environmental management and safety and health within the mining industry. While the ASM sector has grown, its progress in improving and bringing the sector under effective regulatory control has lagged behind.

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Most ASM host countries are yet to bring the sector under effective regulatory control and still experiences high volumes of illegal mining activities or poor compliance. This prolonged situation has enabled many adverse aspects of the sector to propagate and one such area is the continued state of a poor working environment persisting in the sector.

Many artisanal and small-scale miners still operate in compromised working environments which include poorly constructed mining sites, numerous safety and health hazards, precarious labour requirements, rudimentary and makeshift equipment, violence, crime and even child labour. It is well known that annually the months of May and June have dates set aside to honour workers and to also highlight the fight against child labour. Following from the same, it is important to highlight the deficient state of ASM working environments and the need to assist the sector to improve its safety, health and environmental performance.

On the 14th and 15th of June 2021, 20 partially decomposed remains of illegal miners were found near Orkney and Stilfontein, 200 km south-west of Johannesburg. Preliminary reports suggest that an underground gas explosion occurred while a large group of artisanal miners were working in the old goldmine shafts thus leading to their mass deaths. Unfortunately, such loss has become common place in many ASM host countries with countless fatalities being recorded annually.

This recurring pattern of fatalities, illness, serious injuries and conflicts reveals the precarious and dangerous working conditions that miners in this sector experience daily. The rate at which an effective regulatory solution is being developed is progressing slowly relative to the rate at which the sector itself is growing. This has led to the proliferation of treacherous working conditions and unsafe work environments which are becoming increasingly difficult for governments to monitor or police.

It is important for ASM host countries to pay attention not only to licensing and product aggregation in the ASM sector but to also invest in delivering comprehensive, effective and practical regulation that can drive improved labour conditions and safer working environments for sector participants.

Improving the labour and working environment conditions in the ASM sector is no small feat because it is closely tied to establishing effective regulatory control over the sector and tackling the integration of the sector into the formal economy. These two issues are broad in scope and require multi-regulatory stakeholder consensus on the parameters of regulation.

Most ASM host countries have not managed to effectively bring the artisanal mining under effective control, that is, while progress has been made on licensing and policy development there is still a significant component of the sector that operates illegally or cannot comply or wholly fulfil regulatory demands. This points to the fact that the regulatory demands are still incompatible or out of reach with the capacity of the regulatory target.

It is fundamental for governments to come up with agreeable composite regulatory frameworks for the sector which result in effective control being established over the sector. It is difficult to engineer formalization or to ensure the progressive economic integration of the sector if the sector remains outside the confines of effective or significant regulatory influence. One of the possible reasons of the inadequate conversion of the sector to formal status is that the process of policy and legislative formulation in respect of the sector is still being modelled to mirror the structure followed in the large-scale mining sector. Resultantly, some elements of the proposed regulations remain incompatible or impractical for sector participants.

It is a considered view that creating a better conceptual framework for the ASM regulatory framework requires the enhanced participation of the ASM players themselves. It is trite that the sector has developed its own rudimentary structures and self-governing systems and it is important to realise the value of these systems because they are a rough representation of what is agreeable to the sector participants, and this is an important starting point for viable regulatory control.

The role of government is to analyse these rudimentary systems and thereafter build viable regulatory concepts for the regulation of the sector. When it comes to crafting industry labour and working standards, it has always been customary for industry leaders and regulators to enlist the direct participation of workers through collective bargaining forums that then culminate in Collective Bargaining Agreements which thereafter form part of the legislative framework. The underlying concept and tenets of collective bargaining can be used to structure the development of sound policy and regulatory development in the ASM sector.

The ASM sector has been the leading subject in various consultative forums, and this has assisted in bringing the circumstances of the industry into focus. However, it is now important to engage the sector with a purpose of establishing multi-stakeholder forums which are tasked with discussing, developing and delivering regulatory parameters for the sector. The exchange of ideas and enabling a bargaining forum between regulatory agents and regulatory targets in the ASM sector is important in being able to eventually deliver practicable regulatory conditions for the sector.

In executing progressive consultation with the sector, it is important to procure the wide participation of both legal and illegal ASM participants because the final regulatory framework has to enable legal ASM participants to enhance their operations while also being able to convince the illegal component of the sector to transition to legitimacy. It is a considered view that practical industry guidelines that can lead to the sector coming under effective regulatory control can only come from industry led solutions.

While the impact of poor work environments and poor labour practices in the ASM sector seem to be confined to ASM participants, the reality is that the adverse impacts generated by the sector are borne by the entire nation. The cost is carried in terms of increased pressure on health care systems due to an increase in various progressive long terms diseases from exposure to dusts and toxins, contaminated water and land, increase of violence and conflicts associated with mining, environmental degradation and destruction, continued fatalities and crime associated with smuggling and illicit trade in minerals. It is important to see how the poorly regulated state of the ASM sector transcends the confines of the sector and affects national interests.

The formalization of the ASM sector has significant bearing on economic and social development in Africa. Therefore, it is important to keep the sector in focus and expedite the rationalization of the sector and its integration into the formal economy.