Enabling Stronger Voices from the Underground in Southern Africa


Date Publish: 
Tuesday, March 29, 2016

In February, Voices from the Underground, an IOM project in partnership with local actors in Mozambique and South Africa, completed a year fully dedicated to reinforce a migrant mine worker association and their members to improve their representation role and inform them of their rights.  The main outcome has been to strengthen the knowledge, organizational and technical capacities of these migrant human rights defenders. This has contributed to current and previous mine workers, as well as their families in communities of origin to access the social security benefits they are entitled to, including healthcare, pension and worker compensation. As a result of these on-the-ground interventions, coupled with joint advocacy, governments and civil society are better suited than ever to discuss policy changes to counter human rights violations against these vulnerable migrants consciously and independently.

This favourable scenario is in contrast to the reality IOM Mozambique encountered in 2014 at the start of the project. In the upstream level, IOM is talking with policy makers in Mozambique to improve their support to migrant mine workers. In the downstream spectrum, the Mozambican Mine Workers Association (AMIMO), began to operate in a more proactive, professional and accountable way, both financially and in its representative role. IOM Mozambique’s partnership with AMIMO provided infrastructure and experts, building institutional capacity that revitalized the offices in Mozambique and South Africa, to formally establish the mining workers associations in both countries. Within this new approach, the association provided services such as legal counseling and casework, concerned with collecting evidence of rights abuses and the inability to access adequate information on occupational compensation or pensions that helps people to demand their rights. This was made possible by the ongoing support of the NGO Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), another strategic partner, who provided mentoring and capacity building to AMIMO to collect and advise on complicated legal cases and direct litigation if necessary. 

IOM has witnessed cases such as Helena’s, a woman who grew up in the poor Mozambique countryside, with limited access to basic resources, such as formal education and professional assistance to help her defend her rights. She lost her husband twice: first, when he left to work in the mines in South Africa, and then to Tuberculosis, the most common communicable disease affecting mine workers and their communities of origin and destination. Barriers for Helena to access her compensation included the lack of required documentation such as autopsy reports, medical and employment records that are provided to the beneficiary at a price and held by The Employment Bureau for Africa (TEBA), the main recruitment agency for the mines in South Africa. Due to the lack of knowledge on their rights, restrictions in travel to South Africa to submit applications, the non-portability of compensation and benefits across borders and the required fees for these essential documents, Helena along with thousands of others are not able to access the compensations they are entitled to.  

Helena is one example of generations in the field. Information gathered by IOM and partners points to a need to investigate the number of mine workers, the contracts being made, and cases of human rights abuse. An unidentified number of migrant mine workers are working in South Africa without formal contracts, in violation of their labour and health rights. AMIMO claims that as many as 40,000 Mozambicans, retrenched from the contracted mining system, have returned to their country under precarious circumstances. TEBA currently estimates that 39,500 Mozambicans are contracted with the mines through formal mechanisms, with another 40,000 Mozambicans working in non-licensed mines or through sub-contracts.

Funded by the European Union Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), Voices from the Underground ends next July and expects to prepare the field for further changes. The partnership that brought together three key advocates for migrants’ rights in the region — IOM, AMIMO, and LHR — already proved its effectiveness. These actors performed together with an innovative approach focused not only on vertical issues such as increasing the knowledge of current and past mine workers and communities of origin on their rights but also providing access to compensations or occupational health issues. A threefold strategy combined: 1) Coordination for political change focused on the region’s development; 2) institutional capacity building of mine worker representatives; and 3) stronger legal services provided to civil society and human rights’ defenders. Each dimension had its own complexities, and the solutions were not isolated.
Momentum is building in the region and a strong empowered civil society must be at the forefront so the multitude of voices from the underground are heard.