Poverty Plagues Axed Alaska Mine Workers 18 Years On

By Nhau Mangirazi

Alaska, October 18, 2016 – HARRISON Phiri casts back and laments how life has changed for him and fellow former Alaska mine workers.

“We are now just fighting to deliver at least a single meal a day for our children; getting even a dollar a day is now a nightmare,” says Phiri.

He is among some 250 former workers who lost their jobs when the copper mine closed down in 1998 citing viability challenges, after more than 40 years of operation.

“It is pitiful to say the least as there is no hope that these mines will re-open any time soon besides political statements we have heard for too long,” Phiri says,

He adds, “We do not see operations resuming any time soon; definitely, not during our lifetime. We used to enjoy working here.”

Alaska is situated some 15km out of Zimbabwe’s farming town of Chinhoyi.

The once lively area now resembles yet another ghost town as businesses which used to thrive during the mining period have also closed down due to lose of incomes by customers from the mines.

Women who could remain at home taking care of their children while husbands worked in the mines have joined their spouses in trying to source for incomes through selling cassava and sugar cane.

“Selling cassava is now part of our survival. We can sell for as little as $2 a day but we have to meet other financial obligations,” says Gogo Agnes Banda, aged 75.

Roger Mlotshwa, a former motor electrician and workers’ representative at the mine says most of his colleagues were now destitute.

“The majority of former mine workers are still below retirement age of 55 to 60,” he says.

“Most of those affected by the mine closure were in their prime age of 35 to 40 years. It is getting tough for some former mine workers who are still yet to get pensions.

“Unfortunately some have since passed on without getting their benefits. This is affecting their children who may not have the means of accessing their parents’ pension contributions, which will worsen their plight.”

He adds, “Packages of most of the retrenched workers were also affected by inflation and, by then, some of the workers had not yet bought any assets. And to get what they got the negotiations were tough because the closure was sudden, at a time when the workers had accrued huge debts they had planned to settle over time.”

He however adds that although workers voluntarily registered with the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) as a way of securing their future, their children were still living in abject poverty. 

“NSSA is not assisting them at all,” says Mlotshwa.

 A website comment by NSSA also does not make any good reading for many former Alaska mine workers yet to reach 55.

The authority says those who have been in “laborious” jobs are entitled to benefits when they reach 55 and only after being in the job for at least seven years.

Those outside the category should wait up to 60.

Mlotshwa further said some mine workers had slim chances of living longer because they were now terminally ill after being exposed to highly toxic chemicals when they were still working in the mines.

“Some workers suffer from lung diseases such as pneumoconiosis and they have not been assisted by anyone after they were laid off when the mine closed,” he says.

Pneumoconiosis is an occupational and a restrictive lung disease caused by inhaling organic and non-organic dusts which are then retained in the lungs.

Jobs associated with the disease include asbestos mining, fabric manufacturing, quarry mining, sand blasting and stone cutting, among others.