We stand with the poor when multinational corporations violate their human rights

Inspired by the Catholic Social Teaching, the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission continues to stand in solidarity with the poor in South Africa who are victims of massive human rights violations perpetrated by powerful multinational corporations and domestic business firms. “It is the poorest of the poor who are hardest hit when multinational corporations and domestic firms decide to prioritize profit over human dignity,” said Fr. Stan Muyebe, the Director of the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission.  

Fr Muyebe noted that this has particularly been the case with the ex-miners suffering from silicosis and black lung disease both in the gold and coal mining sector respectively.    “Justice and Peace Commission has been at the centre of demanding justice for such workers, insisting to the mining industry that the health of the working poor is more important than profit.”   

He added that in South Africa, the benefits of mining and its massive wealth have not been equitably shared with mining communities and the workers who were often used by the mines as cheap and disposable labour. “The demands for reparation for the sick miners are therefore linked to what Catholic Social Teaching calls redistributive justice,” added Fr. Muyebe.

The Director of the Justice and Peace Commission said there are different interventions that the Commission has undertaken with respect to justice for the sick miners.  He pointed to the case in 2019, where the Justice and Peace commission together with Denis Hurley Peace Institute were involved in the last stages of the class action lawsuit on silicosis by providing mediation to disputing parties. “The mediations of the dispute were important for the decision by the High Court as to whether or not to approve the R4 Billion silicosis settlement agreement” pointed out Fr. Muyebe.  He went on to note that since the approval of the settlement, Justice and Peace has continued with its advocacy to exert pressure on Tshiamitso Trust to expedite settlement of compensation claims submitted by gold miners from South Africa and other African countries.

Pointing out other problematic areas Fr. Muyebe said other than silicosis, there is also a problem of black lung disease, also known as pneumoconiosis, linked to sick miners in the coal mining sector.  

“Miners in South Africa have some of the highest rates of black lung diseases in the world. Such miners now want to lodge class action lawsuit.  Justice and Peace Commission is assisting them and the lawyers as they prepare to launch the class action lawsuit.” Fr. Muyebe clarified that the lawsuit will involve demanding reparation from five coal mining companies, some of which are multinational companies. 

According to Fr. Muyebe the work of defending the poor in cases of corporate violation of human right is not limited to the mining industry, “together with lawyers, the Justice and Peace Commission is also providing accompaniment to victims who opened class action lawsuit linked to listeriosis outbreak.” He said in 2017 and 2018, more than 300 families lost their loved ones and more than 1,000 people got sick after eating listeria-infected processed meat.  “The majority of the victims were the poor since processed meat is food that is affordable to the poor.   Most of the victims were from Gauteng, Durban, Western Cape, and Limpopo.” 

Additionally, points out Fr Muyebe, the Commission is also accompanying the poor who want to lodge class action lawsuit against Toyota SA and banks over illegal conversion of minibus taxis and ambulances.   He noted that the poor involved in this case are people who lost their loved ones or got injured between 2005 and 2013 during accidents linked to three-seater panel vans that were illegally converted to taxis and ambulances.    “The report on the illegal conversion issue by the public protector in 2019 found that the illegally converted taxis were not safe for the road and contributed to massive number of accidents, where hundreds of people sustained injuries and loss of lives.” He reminded that the vehicles were modified into minibus taxis to carry passengers despite the fact they were not safe for that purpose, and the banks and other stakeholders who were involved in these unsafe taxis prioritized profit over the safety of the poor who often use such public transport.

“The common thread in all the cases that the commission is involved with is the fact that the poor are the ones who are victims: the working poor who contracted lung diseases in the mines,  the poor who suffered loss of lives after eating listeria-infected polonies,  the poor who suffered loss of lives when using the taxis as the public transport for the poor,” Said Fr. Muyebe, reminding again that it is the poorest of the poor who are hardest hit when multinational corporations and domestic firms decide to prioritize profit over human dignity.  He noted that such poor people do not have resources, power and voice when confronted by giant corporations, their powerful lawyers and their strong political connections, adding that, “It is therefore important that the church, the human rights lawyers and civil society stand with them and their struggles when they decide to demand justice and reparation from powerful corporations.” 

“It is true that South Africa and other African countries need multinational corporations and investments to facilitate increase in economic growth and job creation,” admits the Director of the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission, but he added that, however, in South Africa and other African countries, it should not be business as usual when multinational corporations and domestic companies deliberately cause massive loss of lives and injuries among the poorest of the poor.   “We are sending a strong message to political and business leaders that they should place ethical values at the centre of economic and business activities,” asserted Fr. Muyebe. He explained that in practice, this means that, in their business and economic decisions, they should prioritize the protection of the dignity of the poor and the integrity of God’s creation over wealth creation for investors. “They should also make sure that trade and investment agreements are guided by the demands of integral human development. Trade and investments agreements should therefore be accompanied and regulated by human rights and environmental impact assessments,” added Fr. Muyebe.

Turning to the words from the Vatican, Fr Stan Muyebe said in Laudato Si, Pope Francis has noted that the 21st economy is dominated by large transnational corporations who often wield more power than individual countries.   He said the Pope lamented that in the Global South, such global corporations exploit their political influence to avoid taxes, to damage environment and commit human rights abuses with impunity.   There is therefore a need for an enforceable international agreement to protect the voiceless against abuses by the powerful corporations.   “SACBC Justice and Peace Commission is therefore working closely with Justice and Peace Commissions in Europe in demanding a binding UN treaty on business and human rights.   In September, there will be a meeting to discuss outstanding issues in the drafting of the UN treaty,” said the Director of the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission.



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