South Africa’s Migrant Mining Labor Force: Bringing Home the Bacon and TB

Working in crowded conditions, miners are especially vulnerable to TB.

By Anthony Caingles

South Africa’s mining industry is highly dependent on migrant workers coming from neighboring countries like Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. These men travel from their villages to their mineral-rich neighbor to earn a living and to take home some income to their families.  Unfortunately, they often bring home something else. Tuberculosis.

Highest Rate of Infection

South Africa’s mine workers have the highest infection rate of TB in the world. Mining activities are pregnant infection sites for tuberculosis and at least a third of infections in the southern region of Africa can be traced to the industry.  Each year, new people are infected. Research findings show that 3% to 7% of miners develop TB infections every year.

Conducive to Transmission

So when new, healthy, migrants come to the mines and stay – the chances are that their resistance to the disease will be slowly pared down by the poor working conditions, preparing them to become ripe hosts for the Mycobacterium tuberculosis circulating in the confined air of the mines and transmitted by infected co-workers.

And the sad multiplier effect of this infection is that each migrant worker who catches TB brings it home to his family.

Need for Cross-Border Solutions

IOM stands with members of the South African Development Community (SADC) in its “Declaration on Tuberculosis in the Mining Sector” signed in August 2012.

"IOM remains committed to support SADC member states to address TB and HIV in the mining sector. Promoting the health of migrants benefits both sending and receiving countries as well as employers, their families, and society as a whole. The signing of this Declaration is a step in the right direction towards the realization of healthy migrants in healthy communities," said Dr. Erick Ventura, Regional Migration Health Coordinator and acting IOM Chief of Mission in South Africa.

The importance of coming up with a solution that takes into consideration the cross-border characteristics of transmission is underlined by Dr. Mario Raviglione, Director of the World Health Organization’s Stop TB Department.

"Addressing TB in the mines in a way that covers cross-border issues is crucial to progress against the epidemic in Africa, and we congratulate the SADC heads of state for cementing their commitment to moving towards zero TB infections, zero TB deaths and zero TB stigma," he said.

Cost-Effectiveness of Action vs. Inaction

SADC member states are seeing the cost-effectiveness of addressing the TB problem in their areas of responsibility. The annual cost of just reacting to the TB epidemic in the South African mining sector alone would be at least USD 880 million. Taking proactive steps would cost only USD 570 million.

Action Points

The declaration points to five necessary interventions:

  1. Actively find people with TB and provide them with prompt treatment.
  2. Eliminate conditions that lead to high rates of TB in the mines.
  3. Improve TB treatment.
  4. Actively seek former mine workers who could have TB.
  5. Create a legal and regulatory framework that provides compensation for occupational disease among miners.

Read the Declaration