Inside Labour: Cool heads must rule as gold wage talks begin

2015-02-23 15:00

It is speculated that the spectre of the R12?500-a-month wage demand stalks South Africa’s gold mines – but no mandates have yet been received by the unions involved.

This figure leapt to prominence at Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana in August 2012 and has developed an iconic status among mine workers.

As the gold sector gears up for what are traditionally tough wage talks, the R12?500 demand is likely to surface when unions consult their members.

It will be encouraged by an awareness among miners that gold shares have performed extremely well on the JSE recently.

However, as several analysts have pointed out, the share price is not an accurate reflection of the reality on the ground. Given rising costs – especially of electricity – a number of gold producers are likely to close down shafts, with the possibility of heavy job losses.

These are all factors that will be discussed when union representatives consult their members in a series of meetings in the month ahead.

Despite interunion rivalry, mainly between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), there is at least a cautious commitment from all sides to cooperate.

The NUM’s official position is: “We do not have a problem working with any union.”

Amcu issued a statement this week echoing its nemesis.

Chamber of Mines president Mike Teke added that he hoped “cool heads” would prevail.

The mining industry is in a relatively parlous state, particularly because it has been hit hard by Eskom’s inadequate and sometimes sporadic power supply.

Unions and employers tend to agree that a crisis exists, although government insists it’s actually a “challenge” that is being resolved.

None of President Jacob Zuma’s pronouncements about energy in his state of the nation address seem to have instilled much confidence either.

The energy crisis has given additional impetus to the proposal that government adopt an interventionist approach to “strategic minerals”.

Coal has specifically been mentioned, but platinum has also been suggested as “strategic”.

The unions fear that unless there is decisive state intervention in the sector, thousands of jobs could be at stake. These fears were highlighted late last month with the announcement by diversified mining company Glencore that, in the wake of low coal prices, it would be shutting down operations at its Optimum mine in Mpumalanga.

This would affect about 1?500 jobs.

Job-loss fears and the future of the mining industry have unleashed a potentially crucial and largely behind-the-scenes battle to influence the outcome of the controversial Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act.

The act was referred back to Parliament on the advice of Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi.

Both the NUM and Amcu favour state intervention, while employers generally do not.

Here, cool heads do seem to be prevailing on the union front. Livhuwani Mammburu, the NUM’s spokesperson, noted that any moves in this direction must be informed “by an open, thorough, consultative process between role players”.

Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa, meanwhile, cautions that “a proper regulatory impact assessment must be done to examine possible problems that can arise”.

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