More than 1 500 mine workers at Gold Fields’ South Deep mine on the West Rand could spend the festive season with no work after talks between the majority union and the mine deadlocked.
The mine announced in August it would retrench 1 102 permanent workers and 460 contractors.
Having undergone the procedural consultation processes, the parties failed to agree on a way forward and it now seems unavoidable that jobs will be lost.
When the mine issued severance notices to the 1 102 workers two weeks ago, the unions announced a strike, which started two days later.
This week tension erupted and two buildings were burnt down. Gold Fields accused the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) of burning the buildings.
It also accused union members of assaulting workers who tried to go to work.
Mine spokesperson Sven Lunsche said that last Sunday a group of protesters attacked a South Deep protection services light-armoured vehicle, which was transporting security employees.
“The protesters threw rocks at the vehicle and attacked it with pangas and other homemade weapons, threatening the employees inside,” he said.
“The strike action is purportedly to head off the necessary retrenchment of 1 500 employees and contractors. If the strike is prolonged, it will put the remaining 3 500 jobs at South Deep at risk,” Lunsche said, adding that before the strike the mine was losing R3 million a day.
Shortly before speaking at a union meeting at the mine’s premises this week, NUM branch chairperson Kanetso Matabane denied the union was responsible for burning down the buildings.
He and fellow union United Association of South Africa (Uasa) had received intimidating text messages from Gold Fields’ vice-president Benford Mokoatle.
“Our relationship [with Uasa] is very good. Even the agreements we sign we do so jointly. We don’t have issues with Uasa. Some of their members are joining us on the strike.
“There is no communication at all with management except we are receiving threatening SMSes. We are trying to involve the government and DMR [the mineral resources department] hoping that they will be able to convene the parties,” he said.
Matabane said among the issues raised by the company against the union was that the members were mobilising local communities.
This had occurred after one of the ANC alliance partners’ office bearers from the community spoke at a meeting of the union.
“We proposed that there must be proper facetime management, which is the time the worker spends on travelling to the workplace.
“The infrastructure also does not support the mining method we use. We have conventional infrastructure but it is a mechanised mine,” he said, adding that the union proposed that almost 1 400 workers who haven’t taken leave in a few years take the leave to avoid the company having to
pay for it.
“What became clear is that management was not interested in minimising the number of retrenchments.
“They came with the decision taken already. They consulted in bad faith,” Matabane said.
The union has proposed to management that the number of contractors be minimised and overtime be managed, he said.
He accused management of not having confidence in South African labour because it had previously brought in Australian artisans to operate machines.
This was supposed to be a skills transfer programme but he claimed the mine did not hire the people who benefited from the programme.
Lunsche said if there was ground to sue both the union and the union leaders, the company would do so.
Matabane said the workers weren’t going anywhere and if Gold Fields could not run the mine, it should surrender the mining rights to the government and other businesses would take it over.
The company bought the mine in 2006 and two years later retrenched 1 800 workers. It now employs about 5 500 workers.