For the silicosis widows of India, the struggle continues

On May 4, India’s Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to compensate the families of 238 workers who died of silicosis while working in unregulated quartz crushing factories. Within the month Gujarat is supposed to pay each family 300,000 rupees, or around $4,500. The Court also directed the Madhya Pradesh government to take care of an additional 304 workers currently suffering from silicosis. As in South Africa, the story of industrial silicosis is a widows’ tale, from horrible start through brutal inner chapters to whatever the end will be.

According to a 1999 Indian Council of Medical Research report, in India about 3 million are at risk of silica exposure. Since that report, the numbers of workers in the various fields – mining and quarries, manufacture of non-metallic products, manufacture of basic metals and alloys, and construction – has only increased, and since that time pretty much nothing has improved in the conditions of labor, and so one assumes that the 3 million mark has been exceeded by quite a bit.

Across Madhya Pradesh, this “occupational trend” has produced an archipelago of widow villages, and that’s the point. The villages are not new and are not unknown. Women’s organizations have long lobbied for compensation. For ten years, the National Human Rights Commission has documented and organized to improve the situation of the workers and their families. At every step of the way, the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh governments have refused any sort of assistance.

It’s a common enough story. Small hold farmers from tribal communities were forced off their lands by market forces, weather, and the poverty of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which, in Madhya Pradesh, guarantees stay-at-home-and-die. And so populations of mostly male workers went off to work in the factories of Gujarat. When they returned home, usually earlier than expected, they were frail, coughing, bleeding versions of the men who had left. And women were left to tend to the dying, the dead, and the debts. Then the women started going to Gujarat to work crushing stones.

Madhavi comes from a village in Madhya Pradesh. She joined four family members who went to work in Gujarat. Six months later, sick, they all returned home. To pay for medical treatment, they sold off their livestock and mortgaged their land. Then Madhavi’s mother, two brothers and sister-in-law died of silicosis. Now, sick with silicosis, Madhavi cares for her father and struggles with debt: “With my brothers gone, I am not sure when I‘ll be able to pay off all the loans. I have received no support from the government. My father does not receive any pension. It is very difficult to get by as I am always tired and run out of breath while working.”

Meanwhile, across Rajasthan, mineworkers’ widows tell the same story of death, debt, and desperation. Prembai explains, “[My husband] could not work for the last six years of his life, so I would work to keep things going. Women earn just Rs100 a day in the mines, while men are paid about Rs250.” The bodies and debts pile up; the State looks away. In Rajasthan as elsewhere, entire villages are called “the land of widows”.

The story of silicosis in India is the same as that in South Africa. For those who work the mines and factories, there is no dignity in labor. For the widows, there is no dignity in death. The bodies come home, the debts and demands mount, the extraction continues.


(Photo Credit: The Hindu / Rohit Jain Paras)

For Nozuzile Mankayi, the struggle continues

Nozuzile Mankayi

Nozuzile Mankayi is a gold widow.

Her husband, Thembekile Mankayi, spent 1979 to 1995 working underground in the Vaal Reefs gold mine, in South Africa. In 1993, Mankayi contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. He received treatment, improved slightly, and then suffered a recurrence, and had to leave. When he left, he was paid a mere R16,000 for his troubles. In 2006, he was diagnosed with silicosis.

In 2006, Thembekile Mankayi sued AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. for 2.6 million rand. He sued for dignity. Four years later, in August 2010, the Constitutional Court heard the case. Seven months later, March 2011, the Constitutional Court decided in Thembekile Mankayi’s favor.

Thembekile Mankayi died one week before the decision was announced.

It’s been three years, and his widow, Nozuzile Mankayi, has not received a single penny.

The South African compensation system is designed to strangle and choke gold widows to death. First, they have to submit their respective partner’s bodies to a post mortem. For many families, cutting open the body is forbidden. So, women have to be prepared to withstand often intense opposition and worse.

Second, women survivors receive far less than their partners would have.

Jenni Williams, of the Women’s Legal Centre, has argued, “The women who take care of miners are doing unpaid care work. At the moment we are developing a strategy around what would be the best way to litigate around this, but for now we are saying that unpaid care work should be recognised in the context of damages claims, but also in government planning and budgeting. There needs to be recognition that women contribute towards the economy in that they are working for free, which means that there is a saving. In other words, where you had to hire a nurse to look after the sick person, you would have the wife or daughter doing this for free. In terms of this class action suit, what we are proposing is that part of the damages award is a trust that is set up that acknowledges the saving that the mining companies would have by virtue of the fact that these men’s partners and daughters are going to look after them … The court should take that into account when they look at the damages claim because the person doing the harm is actually benefiting from the woman’s unpaid care work.”

It has been said, “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important.” All the harm addresses women. When miners are attacked, in their lungs by dust and in their chests by bullets, women carry them, through the long day’s night and to the graveside. The persons doing harm benefit from that. They benefit from women’s unpaid labor and used up lives. They benefit from the tragedy of others deemed unheard and unseen: women.

Thembekile Mankayi waged a mighty campaign against predators who ultimately exploded and collapsed his lungs. Nozuzile Mankayi will not stay unheard or unseen. For her, and for the more than 200,000 former gold mineworkers and gold widows now engaged in a class action suit, the struggle continues.


(Photo Credit: Laura Lopez Gonzalez /

For women, the bodies come home, the extraction continues


A report came out today that considers the compensation system for occupational lung disease in South Africa’s mines. The compensation system mirrors the mining industry in that it brutalizes the mostly male Black work force and, equally and systemically, the mostly female Black mining communities `back home.’

According to the report, the system is one hundred years old, and in a hundred years, not much has changed. Mineworkers still come primarily from the Eastern Cape, and from Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, and Mozambique. Mine work in South Africa is “particularly risky,” which, given mining conditions elsewhere, is saying something. South Africa `boasts’ the world’s deepest gold mines, and the orebodies are extraordinarily narrow. As a result, miners face high rates of exposure to silica dust every single day.  While the compensation for those who suffer silicosis is no longer formally skewed towards White mineworkers, effectively it still disenfranchises Black mineworkers. Much of the reason for this is the lack of access those mineworkers have once they go back home. Thus the sinister impact of geographical employment patterns continues more or less unabated a full century later, and twenty years into the new South Africa.

Much of the compensation falls under the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act, or ODIMWA, passed in 1973. Despite some fifteen rounds of amendment since 1973, not much has changed. The status quo has a particular fate in store for women:

ODIMWA’s autopsy provision for deceased workers effectively puts compensation out of reach for already disadvantaged claimants, such as migrants, women, and blacks. If autopsy remains a route to compensation, it should be more accessible and better explained. If a mineworker or former mineworker was not diagnosed with a compensable disease while alive, survivor claimants can only receive compensation by submitting the deceased’s cardiorespiratory organs to the DOH for autopsy. This requirement can prove a major hardship. Organ removal is inconsistent with various claimant communities’ cultural beliefs. For instance, some southern African customs exclude widows from decision-making, which can include providing medical consent, during a bereavement period following husbands’ deaths. As a result, using autopsies to determine eligibility disadvantages female survivors, especially those from certain African ethnic groups. In addition, logistical shortcomings, such as unequal distribution of government-issued autopsy organ collection boxes, make it challenging for black survivors to apply. These barriers are also high for survivors of migrant workers, as the South African government does not distribute autopsy equipment in other countries. Moreover, many survivors are not even aware of the autopsy option.”

Women are the survivors, and women in mining communities, which are often quite distant from the mines, discover, in the niceties of autopsy provisions, that, for those who labor the mine, there is no dignity in labor, and, for their survivors, there is no dignity in death. The bodies come home, the debts and demands pile up, the extraction continues.


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