In the month we celebrate the International Day of Women in Mining, GATJ’s Riska Koopman underlines how mining should contribute to achieving gender equality and alleviating poverty
In June, the International Day of Women in Mining invited us to reflect on and commemorate how far women in mining have come. Women have been written out of mining history – their employment for underground work in mines was even prohibited for a while after the adoption of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Convention 45, back in 1935. Although women are largely legally allowed to work underground since as countries gradually repealed gender-discriminatory laws, numerous barriers remain intact preventing women from fully benefiting from mining.
As a woman of the Global South, I expected discussions on this International Day of Women in Mining would not only enrich our understanding of the different experiences of women in this sector around the world, but also enlighten how the industry has been contributing to increasing inequalities, especially at a moment of super profits.
In the Global South, women in the mining industry are overrepresented in the informal sector. Sociologists and feminist scholars like Benya and Bradshaw argue that women continue to supply their reproductive labour to multinational corporations whilst absorbing the negative externalities associated with mining projects, such as increased gender-based violence, environmental destruction, and familial breakdown.
According to the World Bank, economic multipliers tied to mining are significant, and the benefits of mining go beyond the sector, creating positive spillovers – such as jobs and public revenue – that can support other sectors. However, these positive spillovers are limited to few people: they are only benefitting the political and economic elite, literature suggests. As Lahiri-Dutt and Mahy identify, “winners to mining projects” have been those with better education or economic power and acumen enabling them to cope with these changes and reap benefits from them.
It is important to contextualise the role of women in extractives in the Global South. Besides making up a disproportionate percentage of workers in the informal sector, as UN Women shows, women are severely affected by pay disparities. In South Africa, this has led to the deadly clash known as the Marikana Massacre. Here, it’s also recorded that one miners salary supports up to eight dependents. Research by Benya and Ndibongo, illustrate that women who live outside the mine gates are generally not recognised but play a pivotal role in sustaining mining. Therefore initiatives to “improve people’s lives”, as chief executive officer of Kumba Iron Ore Mpumi Zikalala said, need to address core systemic issues such as remuneration disparities.
Mining companies often come with grandiose promises of economic development, access to education and healthcare. However, globally, these promises have fallen short. Rather, they leave communities sick, jobless and frustrated. These negative externalities of mining are absorbed by women, who become the default shock absorbers due to gender norms and socialisation.
What lacked today was conversations around the role of pay equality and progressive taxation, as tools to promote equality and fairness. The mining sector is one of the most opaque, it is known for being corrupt and obscuring financial accountability and transparency. Mining bosses and shareholders have amassed great returns and bonuses in what has been dubbed “the coal renaissance”, while very little benefits have accrued to workers.
Mining could contribute to achieving gender equality and alleviating poverty in countries where they operate. This, however, will not be possible without stopping tax avoidance and other illicit financial flows. These immoral acts strip the women in mining communities from accruing any benefits for their unpaid but critical labour. Furthermore, it erodes the State’s ability to raise domestic revenue to meet increasingly growing public spending needs. Closing these financial leakages, paying all employees fair, and living wages would benefit women beyond the mine gates. Mining houses have for far too long absconded their responsibilities to the women and mining communities they rely on to extract huge profits.
Riska Koopman is policy advocacy and campaigns coordinator at the Global Alliance for Tax Justice (GATJ). Pan-African intersectional feminist activist, Riska is deeply interested in applying a gender lens to issues of development in the Global South. She has gained extensive knowledge and experience working in the international non-governmental sector, and has over six years experience building, supporting and shaping activists learning, and civil society movements in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly focused on the economic and tax justice agenda.