Johannesburg (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of South African gold miners can pursue a multi-million-dollar class action against mining companies over an often-fatal respiratory disease contracted at work, a judge ruled Friday.
The decision opens the way for up to 500,000 current and former miners to sue about 30 companies for damages after suffering silicosis from dangerous underground working conditions dating back decades.
Many miners caught silicosis, which has no known cure, from inhaling silica dust while drilling rock. The dust lodges in the lungs and causes permanent scars.
Symptoms include persistent coughing and shortness of breath, and the disease regularly leads to tuberculosis and death.
"We hold the view that in the context of this case, class action is the only realistic option," Judge Phineas Mojapelo told the High Court in Johannesburg.
"It is the only avenue to realise the right of access to the courts provided by the constitution."
A group of about 60 former miners brought the case, which is set to expand to involve thousands of elderly men from the poorest rural areas of South Africa as well as Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique.
They accuse 32 mining companies -- including Harmony Gold, Anglo American, Anglogold Ashanti and Gold Fields -- of knowingly and systematically failing to protect workers against silicosis.
The judge said the number of people involved in the class action could range from 17,000 to 500,000.
Speaking on the steps of the High Court, former miner Vuyani Bwadube, who contracted silicosis after 16 years working for Harmony Gold, said there was "no turning back".
"Today's judgement is most welcome... The companies do not have time for us. Even today they don't care," he said.
"Today I am thankful to our leaders and our supporters in this case. We are moving forward now. We are going to win this case."
"It's a historic day for goldmine workers on whose back this country's wealth was built," said miners' lawyer Charles Abrahams.
"It sends out a very important signal... that our courts are very serious about our constitutional democracy and also protecting the rights of the most vulnerable."
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The mining companies issued a statement saying they were studying the court's decision.
"It should be noted that the finding does not represent a view on the merits of the cases brought by claimants," it said.
"There are issues related to compensation and medical care for occupational lung disease that need to be addressed through engagement between stakeholders."
Gold Fields earlier called the miners' case a "generic attack" against the industry and Harmony Gold said any class action would be "unimaginably cumbersome, costly, time-consuming and thus inconvenient".
The class action will be the biggest ever in South Africa, though many miners have already died from respiratory diseases allegedly caused by their jobs.
The judge on Friday said mining work dating back to 1965 was covered by his ruling, and that the families of dead workers could join the suit.
Some studies have found silicosis prevalence in South African gold mines at between 22 and 36 percent of all workers -- among the highest rates in the world.
In 2011, the Constitutional Court paved the way for the class action by ruling that mineworkers who had often accepted paltry compensation for their ill-health could still sue.
The mining companies may seek an out-of-court settlement to avoid protracted litigation and have said they are interested in setting up a "legacy fund" to distribute money.
In a separate case in South Africa earlier this year, about 4,400 silicosis victims and their families won a $32 million settlement from Anglo American and AngloGold Ashanti.
South Africa is one of the world's leading gold-producing countries, and lax labour health and labour practices during the apartheid-era contributed to the spread of work-related diseases.