A discussion piece from LMN volunteer Maynie;

A still from the Chinese documentary Miners, Grooms, and Pneumoconiosis (2019). The film traces the suffering of villagers who have contracted pneumoconiosis from mining iron and tungsten in rural Hunan Province, China.

Mother, when I die,
I want you to have them open me up and
see if that dust killed me.
Try to get compensation,
you will not have any way of making your living
when we are gone,
and the rest are going too.

From Muriel Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (1938)[1]

How do people talk about disease? The answer may be never, or at least, not enough. I remember when I was a child, my dad had to stay in the hospital a couple of times. My parents wouldn’t tell me why and as a child I didn’t feel like it was my place to ask. It wasn’t until years later had my dad revealed to me he had cancer. Thankfully it was cured by then. In Chinese culture disease is often portrayed as a stigma, sticking to someone ill would bring “晦气” (negative energy) to one’s own life. Having lived and studied in the West, I come to discover that the sense of stigma is by no means unique to Chinese culture. Disease, physical or mental, is always the negative space in a conversation, a topic that is not allowed concrete shape, for fear that the monster may invade into the realms of life that we take as normal. Disease becomes the epitome of everything unpleasant, war, poverty, pollution, and other social ills. It is to be contained, forgotten in a shady corner, until it disappears naturally. However, problems never just disappear. As the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates, diseases cannot go away without appropriate treatment. Denying the existence of disease, particularly when certain populations, e.g. racialised communities of migrant workers, are rendered more vulnerable, is to take the passive position of children. Yet disease is contagious. The juvenile approach of foregoing responsibility actually puts oneself at risk. Only when appropriate medical and policy level measures are taken can the spread of disease be contained.

Disease is a social problem. A family member with disease adds to already tedious burdens of caretaking. In the recent Chinese documentary Miners, Grooms, and Pneumoconiosis (2019), the former miner Zhao Pinfeng contracts pneumoconiosis, a deadly occupational lung disease from inhaling mineral dust during mining operations. After spending most of his meagre savings on medical expenses, Zhao eventually passes away, leaving his wife and two young children behind. This type of tragedy is common in rural Hunan province, where the film was shot. In an informal interview with the director Jiang Nengjie, whose father is also one of the pneumoconiosis patients from the village, he told me about the region’s long history of mining. After the late Qing dynasty (1800s~), local farmers would mine iron and tungsten in the mountains whenever the market prices of the metals are relatively high. Practices of artisanal mining have continued in the recent decades, despite the hazards of mining accidents and lung diseases. Occupational lung diseases such as silicosis take up to ten years to show its symptoms. By the time the symptoms manifest, they are already deadly. Silicosis patients have trouble breathing; they cough a lot since their lungs are clogged with mineral dust. Wang Keqin, the founder of the Chinese charity organisation Daaiqingchen, providing aid to farmers with pneumoconiosis, describes that the patients have to “kneel down to breathe”. Due to the lack of formal contracts, these former miners face difficulties in seeking compensation. To avert responsibility, companies and government agencies rarely recognize occupational disease diagnoses. Zhang Haichao, a rural Chinese worker at the end-stage of pneumoconiosis, had to undergo lung biopsy just to provide proof, while the symptoms of his illness could not be more obvious. The case exploded on Chinese media in 2009. Although Zhang eventually received a compensation of 1.2 million RMB due to public pressure, he still struggles to cover the daily medical costs, since pneumoconiosis is a lifelong disease.[2] Without effective healthcare mechanisms, the endless medical bills often drive pneumoconiosis patients and their rural families deep into debt.

Occupational lung disease is a worldwide issue, especially under COVID-19. Miners with pre-existing conditions of pneumoconiosis face more risk of coronavirus infection. For example, in Rajasthan, India, mine workers with silicosis suffer from the delay in government compensation and medical care during the lockdown, and the burden falls onto the women in their families.[3] This raises questions on the social responsibility of care work. Occupational diseases are byproducts of global market demand. Those who contract occupational diseases typically work as miners on the upstream of global supply chains or as construction workers building the foundation of urban infrastructure. The rates of certain occupational diseases also fluctuate based on changes in the economy, particularly the market demand for respective minerals. During the Obama administration, the infection of black lung disease, a common occupational disease caused by coal mining, decreased in the United States as policies to adapt to climate change pushed towards a transition away from coal. By contrast, there has been a resurgence of black lung disease in the US as the Trump administration seeks to re-industrialise America. Since more western countries are now feeling the need to revive national industries due to the disruption of supply chains during COVID, the rates of occupational diseases in the West may rise again. As the coronavirus breakout poignantly demonstrates, the global economy is bound to face disruptions when inflicted with underlying diseases. The COVID crisis only becomes a boiling point when issues such as income inequality, unbalanced flows of the labour force, and inadequate healthcare mechanisms have already accumulated over the past decades. Now societies must face the consequences of ignoring these problems. Effective allocation of responsibility for the social and environmental costs of infrastructure building, across governments and private sectors, is key to the treatment of occupational disease and economic recovery in a post-COVID world.

Occupational disease brings into question whether mining is essentially profitable. With the help of Action for Southern Africa (Actsa), in 2019 thousands of ex-gold mine workers suffering from silicosis in South Africa finally achieved a settlement of at least £268 million, with African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, and Harmony and Sibanye-Stillwater.[4] The settlement was used to establish the Tshiamiso Trust, to fund compensation for eligible gold mine workers and their dependents in South Africa.[5] As a legacy of apartheid, most of the miners who undertook the most dangerous jobs were black. It took 8 years of legal struggle for the workers and their families to get compensation. This case demonstrates how the profits of the mining industry do not represent the environmental and social costs incurred. Actsa and other organisations within the London Mining Network have been pushing for mining companies to account for ecological and health damages, and significant progress has been made. Yet to prevent these tragedies from reoccurring, change needs to happen on the level of social norms. As the Indian scholar and environmental advocate Vandana Shiva argues in Earth Democracy, economics should recover its original function of sustaining life. The exploitation of life for surplus profit disregards long-term health impacts on ecosystems and humans, particularly impoverished, racialised communities that are socially conditioned to engage in risky professions such as mining and construction.  

Disease should be a moment of solidarity instead of exclusion. While global unions have been advocating for the recognition of COVID-19 as an occupational disease, and countries such as Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy, and South Africa have already done so, government designations of COVID as a workplace risk have been mostly limited to the healthcare sector. Even though mining has been (wrongfully) designated as an essential service during the lockdown period in many countries, there is little discussion on the high exposure risks in narrow, underground mines, which may threaten the health of mine workers along with the communities they reside in. The mining sector remains a blind spot in public imagination regarding occupational health risks, perhaps precisely because the risks are high. According to Glen Mpufane, director of mining, diamond, gem, ornament and jewellery processing at IndustriALL Global Union, statistics show that occupational diseases kill more workers than mining incidents. These health hazards are not the responsibilities of mineworkers themselves. Tackling such high exposure to occupational disease requires a commitment to safety standards on the part of governments and corporations. The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 155 provides key recommendations for employers to ensure occupational safety and health, including providing appropriate training and allowing workers to refuse unsafe work until remedial action is taken (Article 19).[6] ILO Convention 156 further recognizes the rights of workers with family responsibilities, paving the way for workers to request employers’ for assistance in childcare as circumstances demand.[7] While a majority of countries have not yet ratified the ILO conventions, C155 and C156 frame workers’ safety and wellbeing in terms of legal rights. When asked about the feasibility of implementing workers’ right to refuse unsafe work, Glen replies, “It is an option when a union wants to organize around health and safety. Our strategy is to get countries to ratify the ILOs, to build capacity for workers to unionize and make demands.” He also points out that corporate disclosure has become a hopeful global trend, through platforms such as the Responsible Mining Index, which encompass 38 large-scale mining companies across 967 mine sites in 52 countries.[8] The COVID-19 crisis also provides an opportunity to push for further data disclosure and monitoring mechanisms with regard to the health and wellbeing of workers in the mining sector.

Occupational health is a matter of sustenance. The purpose of work is to sustain life, for both the workers and the families they support. As COVID poignantly reveals, an economic system that places profit over life is bound to collapse. Disease calls for remedy. In this case, the first step is to rethink the meaning of livelihood from the acquisition of material wealth to preserving the various relationships that sustain our presence on this planet.

[1] Muriel Rukeyser, The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 73-111. The mining industry has a long history of inflicting occupational lung diseases on impoverished workers. In the 1930s the Hawks Nest Tunnels disaster in the US, as documented in American writer and social activist Muriel Rukeyser’s epic poem, caused around 500-1000 deaths among silica miners, most of whom were poor African-Americans from the South. The tragedy brought silicosis as occupational lung disease to the attention of the US Congress and led to compensation legislation to protect workers in the US (Wikipedia). 

[2] http://www.bjnews.com.cn/inside/2018/07/24/496452.html


[4] https://www.silicosissettlement.co.za/

[5] https://actsa.org/campaigns/justice-for-south-african-gold-miners/

[6] https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:C155

[7] https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:C156

[8] https://www.responsibleminingfoundation.org/