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Edward Love
 
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Unions abuse their power

20 January 2014, 17:40

It wouldn’t be a new year without reports of more miners preparing to strike. Early this morning, AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) announced that its members will set down their tools and refuse to work at Anglo American Platinum Mines from Thursday, January 23. The net result? More economic strife for the South African economy, and more damage to our reputation as the world’s largest platinum producer in the world.

It’s true that South Africa is responsible for half the world’s platinum resources, but it’s being stifled, nay, blighted, by AMCU, which Finance 24 describes as “milit[ant]”. Led by its influential and outspoken president, Joseph Mathunjwa, AMCU’s spokesman-in-chief has spurred 90 000 workers to go unpaid for the good of his cause. What is the cause exactly? A significant pay hike. Mathunjwa, who has been leading an impassioned cry for a “living wage”, believes that a starting salary of R12 500 per month is just the tonic for healthy living.

Mathunjwa is an impassioned speaker, but clearly not an economist – to him, it doesn’t matter whether R12 500 is actually feasible. The point is not to be rational, but to be an immovable force that is indifferent to reason.

So what do the miners earn at the moment? During the Marikana strikes in 2012, Mail and Guardian reported that miners took home between 6 700 – 7 400 rand a month. That’s a far cry from the “pittance” that unions were claiming was being paid to their workers. In fact, the same article goes on to reveal an interesting statistic: the minimum wage in platinum mining is higher than in gold and almost any other industry.

But AMCU won’t budge. R12 500 is the figure they have set despite the fact that 60% of Anglo America’s revenue gores to paying wages already. Added to this is the cost incurred upon Anglo America of buying specialised minining equipment and tending to rising electricity bills. The mining industry is a hugely profitable enterprise, yes, but also expensive to maintain. And Anglo America simply can’t afford to double their employees’ wages.

Analysts believe AMCU will hold firm, due in part to its desire to appear committed to its cause. Mathunjwa espouses the sort of populist idealism that wins him support with the disenfranchised. He knows what people want to hear, and he lets them hear it en masse. Arriving at rallies in smart cars with plush interiors, and flanked by burly security, Mathunjwa is a public statesman in all but title.

And perhaps there’s merit in the idea that mineworkers, who endure difficult working conditions, are befitting a better wage. The cost of living isn’t getting any cheaper, for instance. But that doesn’t mean it’s a God-given right to expect more money. Furthermore, where does the figure of R12 500 come from?

Where does one draw the line? Why not R15 000? Or R20 000? AMCU believes a higher wage is necessary because miners are relied on by dependents; unemployed family members, often eight or nine in total, who rely on the income to survive. Unfortunately, the reality is this: Anglo America is responsible for their workers, and their workers only. These workers are reimbursed for their daily toil. Anglo America can ill-afford to be accountable for extended family, too.

“The strike”, however, has become fashionable recourse. And you know what? It’s subject to rampant abuse. When powerful unions like AMCU get thousands of people together, and leaders like Mathunjwa stir them up into a frenzy, violence almost always erupts. This, after all, is the union that stole members from the NUM and then played a part in a bloody turf war. It’s a perfect illustration of just how unions can mushroom out of all control, defeating the very reason behind their existence.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan says the country can “least afford another round of strikes.” (http://www.fin24.com/Economy/Gordhan-Strikes-will-damage-economy-hit-rand-20140120) The rand is expected to fall against the dollar ($1 = R11) but until the big mining unions assume some responsibility for their role in the smooth running of this country and move away from electing radical leaders who trade on idealism, not realism, debilitating strikes of this nature will continue.

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