Informal artisanal women workers in the mining sector

Valiana and Ndebele (2018) have provided a unique study focused on informal women workers in mining, a traditionally male-dominated sector. The presence of women workers in informal mining sectors (as underground mine workers as well as artisanal mining on remains of diamond mines) provides a complex picture of unexpected benefits along with vulnerability. Prior to this research, there was very little data on women artisanal miners in South Africa. This study of informal women artisanal diamond miners in Kimberley in the Northern Cape is not a representative sample of all women artisanal miners in South Africa, it provides a picture of an important sample. The common experience of mining work among the women considered in this study was overwhelmingly positive. The study focused on women miners living in informal settlements around the mines, which typically did not have water, electricity and sanitation facilities. At the time of the research, there were approximately 4,000 informal miners, many of whom were women. Many of the women had taken to artisanal mining to replace or supplement their traditionally undervalued, female work. They saw artisanal mining as a means to escape the gender discrimination experienced in various facets of life, in both the productive and social reproductive spaces. This opportunity brought with it hope of attaining degrees of freedom and respect especially in the workplace. It also otfered the prospect of financial rewards, which for most of the women was the main attraction of the mines. Despite the nature of the work, the women interviewed described their work positively, emphasizing the ability to choose one’s hours of work flexibly, allowing for breaks and being able to determine the pace of work. The experience of working in the soil was also a source of enjoyment and one they embraced openly as they honed their skills in understanding and detecting the variety of soils and ditferentiating the ones most likely to contain diamonds.

Valiani and Ndabele (2018) describe this as a “combination of materiality and belief without excessive materialism” and pointed out that it is quite unique and perhaps even an exclusive work experience among women artisanal mine workers. The research also found that while most female artisanal miners did not find diamonds regularly, they remained driven to continue in this work. While access to the mining camps presented no challenge, the necessary tools were required: having a shovel, a pick, two buckets, some bags for sorting and two sieves were imperative to the trade. Therefore, the main barrier to entry was possession of or access to the required tools. As a result, theft of tools was quite rife and was easy to carrr out, because of the temporary nature of the work and the informal structures in which people lived. Interestingly none of the women reported harassment, safety issues or violence against them accompanying the theft. Male co-workers were the ones who by and large owned the tools and many women described how the tools were used as a currency for abuse against women. Transactional sex in exchange for access to tools was very common and many women workers had entered into these arrangements to improve their chances of finding a diamond.

Several of the women workers referred to this as “financial abuse” and highlighted how men miners were able to exploit and manipulate this vulnerability. All the respondents indicated uniformity across the work tasks; however, the social reproductive sphere remained “the woman’s job” despite them having toiled as hard as the male counterparts. They continued to carry the burden of care work in addition to the other work.

A further drawback was the issue of the black market. Women workers were most vulnerable when it came to selling their finds, since the negotiators were mainly men who were the go-betweens. Being undercut by the middlemen was experienced by all workers, but women were more disadvantaged than men. The lack of work permits exacerbated this, with the black market being the only option for sale. The opportunity to sell to the South African Diamond Exchange and Export Centre (referred to by participants as “the Board”), where prices were more favourable was possible but was the exception rather than the norm, since most workers did not have permits. While “legality” was a major challenge faced by both male and female artisanal miners, male mining workers were more likely to have permits. In response to this challenge, the women miners were attempting to form cooperatives to be eligible for permits, though this initiative was only incipient at the time of the research.

This shows that underground mining and artisanal mining today, like asbestos mining in the past, represent a way out of unemployment and/or typically undervalued, female work. Gendered power imbalances, discrimination and violence against women are persistent, but nevertheless were significantly less in artisanal mining. Furthermore, the ample supply of land and relatively open access to it were key structural conditions that created positive experiences for women workers in the informal artisanal diamond mines and allowed for their inclusion. Such work had the added benefit of worker-selected production teams, worker-determined pace of production, team-controlled earnings and the potential for cooperative structures for legal and administrative purposes. The informal mining sector unlike those in the formal economy has gone beyond the benefits of mere mineral extraction and presents the possibility to adapt production of various ecologically and socially sound goods including the mining of waste in more beneficial ways. Nevertheless, in spite of the financial gain and flexibility, and prospects of earning more, women mine workers endured continuous hardships, ranging from the impact of direct contact with asbestos, gender-biased technologies and standards confronting underground miners, harsh living conditions and constant threats from authorities faced by artisanal miners. Additionally, the suboptimal use of women’s informal labour has led to the destruction of community wealth and stunted social reproduction.

Informal artisanal miners are not organised and there are few regulations on activity in this sector apart from those linked to the actual sales of the diamonds. However, it is quite a significant market and space for labour market activities and while there are similarities to other informal sectors, there are also some quite diverse characteristics and features. Like the other examples presented here, this highlights the need for processes of formalisation of the informal economy to recognise the context, specificities and more critically the varying gendered dimensions which prevail in each activity, thereby requiring a nuanced and sector-specific approach. However, for fonnalisation to translate into something meaningful, informal economy workers need to be organised. The next section focuses on ILO Recommendation 204, and how it provides insights on how this could be achieved.

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