When a Canadian multinational company laid off hundreds of gold miners in South Africa, it went many extra miles to help them get back on their feet.
Placer Dome, a Canada-based global mining firm, had more than 13,000 employees in seven countries. Its 17 mines produced more than 3.5 million ounces of gold and 400 million pounds of copper annually. Layoffs were a depressingly familiar feature of the South African mining industry in the 1990s, when more than 100,000 workers lost their jobs. The newly acquired South Deep Mine in South Africa had to shed 2,500 jobs to remain viable after major health and safety refurbishment. The ex-miners lived in communities scattered across five countries – South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland and Botswana – in some of the most inaccessible places on the planet.
Industry practice in South Africa at the time was to give laid-off employees two weeks of severance pay per year of service, plus access to various job training opportunities at the mine site. But Placer Dome felt this didn’t measure up to its corporate sustainability policy, which commits the company to add “economic, social, and environmental value to the communities where we operate.” Few employees took advantage of training at the mine site, as it required that they stay there, rather than return to their villages. Furthermore, training at the mine site would do little to prepare workers for the economic reality of their remote, impoverished villages.
Many of the ex-miners were in denial about their job status and fully expected to go back to work; some had not even told their families about the layoffs. Moreover, many workers were functionally illiterate or ill with AIDS, making employment training for them problematic. Placer Dome’s South African management set a goal of getting at least 70 per cent of the laid-off workers or their families into new jobs or their own businesses.
Wayne Dunn & Associates (now CSR Training Institute) was appointed to help design the project, develop appropriate international partnerships for it, and support the people carrying it out.
The National Union of Mineworkers had created the non-profit Mineworkers Development Agency (MDA) to aid out-of-work miners and their families but initially, Placer Dome had failed to get the National Union of Mineworkers on its side. Enraged at the sweeping layoffs, the union had challenged them in court but lost. The union had little reason to trust Placer Dome, and much credibility to lose if it backed the Care Project and it failed. When the project started, the union was still telling workers the layoffs would be overturned and they would get their jobs back. On several occasions, project team members endured long, angry lectures from former miners who believed Placer Dome was unfairly taking their jobs.
The Employment Bureau of Africa (TEBA), a recruiting agency for the mining industry with offices throughout southern Africa, and the MDA, which had several training and development facilities in the region, agreed to help the Care Project. In spite of its anger, the National Union of Mineworkers did not object to the involvement of the Mineworkers’ Development Agency. In addition to paying them for their services, the Care Project paid to upgrade some TEBA and MDA training centres and office facilities. The Canadian International Development Agency was invited to participate and agreed to contribute $1.4 million in pursuit of its aims.
The vast geographic spread of the project meant that suitable communications had to be created. The logistical nightmare of transporting outreach workers was solved by supplying fieldworkers with motorcycles and mobile phones, improving their ability to communicate with project managers. The distances also meant that the support had to be customised, based on local requirements and capacity. If, for example, a miner wanted to become a chicken farmer, the project paid for him to receive generic small-business training along with specialised courses on the technical aspects of raising poultry. Whenever possible, trainees were introduced to local experts who could help them develop their businesses over time. The project connected a group of miners-turned-chicken farmers in Mozambique, for instance, with local suppliers of hatchlings and chicken feed.
To showcase alternative job opportunities and help the ex-miners choose a career path, Care Project management along with TEBA and MDA came up with the idea of creating career fairs. These “Open Days” became invaluable in opening the eyes of ex-miners to an array of alternative careers opportunities.One career fair was held in each province, and the project arranged and paid for transportation to bring workers and their spouses in from the villages. Trainers and suppliers set up information booths, and the fairs quickly took on the feel of a celebration as old co-workers reunited. Despite the successful awareness-raising of the career fairs, many ex-miners were still hesitant about choosing between the job training or the small-business training. While excited about the possibility of striking out on their own with a small business, most ex-miners lacked all but the most rudimentary financial skills required to run it so a programme was created to teach them and their spouses basic financial skills. MDA was hired and paid to develop and provide a financial life skills course. Classes included how to operate a calculator, assess microenterprise opportunities and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of self-employment. Trainers and counsellors were professionally certified and, where possible, hired locally.
These one-week financial life skills sessions, in conjunction with Open Days and group counselling sessions, helped workers and their families make two critical choices: who would take the training, the miner or another family member, and whether they wanted to train for new jobs or run their own businesses.
Slowly, the Care Project team’s perseverance began to pay off. Scepticism dissipated as some laid-off workers began getting new jobs, and others started setting up small businesses.
The Care Project ended in December 2003 after virtually all the laid-off miners had been contacted. The team of 5 regional managers and 25 outreach workers had made 3,251 home visits and registered 2,232 participants. Although this was less than the 70 per cent participation rate we had initially sought, we considered the project successful. Of those who registered, 56 per cent were still making at least $100 per month in October 2003 – well above the subsistence-level wages common in the rural areas where they lived. We project that the average beneficiary will earn about $1,000 per year, comparing favourably to the per worker program cost of $1,667.
The AIDS home-based care project has supported nearly 2,200 families and trained over 400 village care supporters in its first two years. In 2002, the home-based care project won the World Bank’s Development Innovation Award. The Care Project won the 2004 Nexen Award for Excellence in Corporate Social and Ethical Responsibility.
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Professor of Practice in Corporate Social Responsibility (McGill)
President & Founder, CSR Training Institute