The death of three workers at ArcelorMittal’s Vanderbijlpark plant in Gauteng, South Africa was confirmed early on February 18. The workers had been trapped under rubble since 2am on February 17 following an explosion at the plant. ArcelorMittal is the largest steel producer on the African continent.
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), two of whose members were among the victims, has called upon the Department of Employment and Labour to carry out “a detailed and thorough investigation into the cause of this incident.”
Reuters reported that according to the company, “a portion of a stack at one of the operation’s coke batteries early on Wednesday fell on to a control room where the three employees were working.”
According to NUMSA spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, for the first 12 hours that Thami Molefe, Shart Mofokeng and Mpho Madomesa were trapped under rubble, the management of ArcelorMittal refused to seek professional help for the rescue operation. Hlubi-Majola told Peoples Dispatch that they relied on about 10 of its own employees to conduct the search and rescue operation who had no specialist training. “ArcelorMittal is supposed to have a rescue team of specialists who can do this work. But they did not, and had to depend on ordinary workers to do the work of specialists,” she alleged.
It was only around 2 pm after a heated meeting with the unions that the management agreed to seek professional help. During the discussion, she added, the management was referring to these workers as ‘bodies,’ assuming they were dead without putting in the necessary effort for rescue. She asked if it would have been so lax had there been managers instead of workers under the rubble.
At the meeting, “one of the unions mentioned the fact that workers were asked to continue their shift after the incident,” said an indignant Hlubi-Majola, who was present at the meeting.
“This is typical of the attitude of ArcelorMittal,” she said, and went on to give an example of an incident in 2017, when after some workers lost their fingers in an accident, the rest were asked to continue with their work.
A NUMSA shop-steward at the time had refused and demanded counseling. “When he made a noise, the company dismissed him. But he won the case at the labor court and was reinstated this year,” she added.
Adding insult to injury, Hlubi-Majola reported that when she arrived to the plant today to participate in a meeting as a NUMSA official, she found that “the CEO of ArcelorMittal banned me from accessing the premises.”
He allegedly cited the video she had posted on YouTube yesterday, giving details of the accident and calling on the public to pressurize the management to act with speed as the reason. “He claims that my video was a problem because it showed pictures of the company. I dispute that with contempt,” she said, adding that the management is angry about being “exposed.”
The incident — which she refuses to call an accident until a thorough investigation has ruled out negligence and safety violations — has raised several questions about the safety protocol at this industrial giant. “Three lives have been snuffed out. Heads must roll,” she insisted, demanding accountability from the company.