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Companies Accused of ‘Taking Advantage of Regulatory Weakness’

Australian mining companies are linked to hundreds of deaths and injuries in Africa, which can go unreported at home.

Australian mining companies are linked to hundreds of deaths and injuries in Africa, which can go unreported at home. 

Some of the Australian Securities Exchange-listed companies include state governments as shareholders. One company recorded 38 worker deaths over an eleven-year period.

In Malawi, litigation continues against Paladin Africa Limited, a subsidiary of Perth-based Paladin Energy, and its subcontractor after an explosion disfigured one worker with such heat that his skin shattered when touched by rescuers. Two others died in the same incident. 

Other allegations include employees in South Africa hacking a woman with a machete and Malian police killing two protesters after a mine worker  reportedly asked authorities to dislodge a barricade on the road to the mine. 

An investigation by ICIJ, in collaboration with 13 African reporters, uncovered locally-filed lawsuits, violent protests and community petitions criticising some Australian companies. 

In all, reporters counted more than 380 employees, subcontractors and community members in 13 countries who died in accidents or incidents linked to the companies since the beginning of 2004, including some who were shot to death. More were horribly disfigured or injured while working at Australian mines or during community protests against them.

The companies involved deny that they were responsible for any of the incidents. 

But Tracey Davies, an attorney with the Centre for Environmental Rights in Cape Town, South Africa, says she has seen a pattern of poor behaviour by Australian mining companies, a sentiment echoed by employees, villagers, tribal leaders, members of parliament and activists across Africa.

“There is a very strong perception that when Australian mining companies come here they take every advantage of regulatory and compliance monitoring weaknesses, and of the huge disparity in power between themselves and affected communities, and aim to get away with things they wouldn’t even think of trying in Australia,” she said.

Australia has more publicly-traded mining companies with interests in Africa – more than 150 at the end of 2014 in 33 countries – than other resource rivals, including Canada and China.

In the Paladin case in Malawi, where two workers died and another was disfigured after an explosion, an  initial accident report indicates unsafe practices by contractors may have been a factor.

Paladin told ICIJ that the cause of the accident was in dispute and that it “denies any negligence on its part and maintains that the Company acted humanely and with the utmost compassion in trying to afford the three injured contractors their best chance of survival.”

At Paladin’s second Africa-based mine in Namibia, unions criticised the company’s safety record after allegations that three female miners miscarried due to radiation exposure. In 2013, a government committee investigated and found “no scientific evidence” that the stillbirths were caused by radiation. The report did, however, identify other breaches of health and safety requirements, contributing to “an impression that Safety matters are not given the necessary priority,” according to report.

Paladin’s Namibian subsidiary said it was not singled out for blame. 

The company said the committee report stated that “most of the safety-related incidents reported to the Ministry … could be attributed to mere uncarefullness (sic.) of the individual employees, although one cannot explicitly rule out the possibility of poor supervision and effective safety awareness campaigns by the regulatory authorities.” 

The Queensland Investment Commission, a government-owned corporation whose shareholders include Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, is a longtime investor in Paladin Energy.

The commission told ICIJ it could not comment on specific investments.

“QIC believes that environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) factors can have an impact on the long-term returns of investment portfolios,” said QIC’s chief executive officer, Damien Frawley, adding that it has a “process which assists us in identifying, managing and actioning poor company behaviour.”

A platinum mine looms over a nearby settlement in South Africa
A platinum mine looms over a nearby settlement in South Africa Image: Photo: Eleanor Bell
Aquarius Platinum, South Africa’s fourth-largest platinum producer, recorded 38 deaths between 2004 and 2014. That includes a landslide in 2010 that crushed five men under a rock the size of a cricket pitch. It is more than all mining deaths in Western Australia during the same period despite at least five times more mining employees in the state than Aquarius has in South Africa.

“Aquarius has acknowledged that the terrible accident at Marikana’s 4 shaft in July 2010 was the worst in the company’s history as a platinum miner,” the company said in a statement. 

“Following this accident, Aquarius redoubled efforts and commitments to safety.”

ICIJ’s investigation uncovered deaths, injuries and legal battles never disclosed in company reports. Although the companies have considerable legal leeway in what they report, critics believe that Australia should require companies to report more social and environmental impacts to the ASX. 

Justine Nolan, associate professor at the University of New South Wales, says Australia lags behind other countries. 

“Everything keeps getting swept under the rug,” she said.

ICIJ is dedicated to ensuring all reports we publish are accurate. If you believe you have found an inaccuracy let us know.