Labour relations in gold and platinum mining are expected to be turbulent in the first half of the year as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) mobilises members behind demands for a basic minimum wage of R12 500 for entry level workers.
Chamber of Mines senior executive for employment relations Elize Strydom said on Sunday she was “apprehensive” ahead of the resumption of work on Monday after the end-of-year break.
This was particularly the case for the world’s three biggest platinum mining companies, Impala Platinum, Anglo American Platinum and Lonmin, where wage negotiations with Amcu have deadlocked.
Ms Strydom said the chamber and the three platinum mines would be “on high alert” on Monday.
Amcu has received certificates of non-resolution of wage negotiations from the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration in respect of all three platinum companies, and may now embark on a protected strike to try to compel them to accede to the R12 500 demand.
Basic entry level pay in the sector, excluding allowances and bonuses, was about R5700, Ms Strydom said, so the parties were far apart.
A co-ordinated strike across all three mining companies would bring the Rustenburg platinum belt to a standstill.
Whether members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at Northam Platinum’s Zondereinde mine in Limpopo return to work on Monday will also be keenly watched. More than 7000 workers were on strike in the six weeks prior to the Christmas break, costing the company more than R200-million.
Chamber of Mines CEO Bheki Sibiya said he thought industrial relations on the mines for the coming months would be “difficult yet manageable”.
Amcu general secretary Jeff Mphahlele said on Sunday he also expected the next few months to be turbulent, because Amcu strongly opposed the chamber’s “unilateral extension” of the two-year gold sector wage agreement to mines where the union had majority representation when it was not party to the agreement.
Mr Mphahlele said the union was collecting mandates from its members about strike action, and would assess the situation when mines reopened on Monday.
A strike was possible, Mr Mphahlele said, as Amcu objected both to its exclusion from the negotiations – concluded by the chamber in September with the NUM, the United Association of South Africa (Uasa) and Solidarity – as well as to the wage increase of 8% agreed upon. It is sticking to its demand of R12,500 as a minimum wage for gold mine workers.
Ms Strydom warned that any strike by Amcu members in a bid to compel the gold mines to continue negotiations would be unprotected and the chamber would seek an urgent court interdict against it because the wage agreement was legally extended to all employees and Amcu was bound by it.
Ms Strydom insisted there was no way negotiations would be reopened as the chamber had concluded a gold sector wage agreement with the three unions that represented most employees in the bargaining chamber.
The NUM represents 61% of those employees, Amcu 17%-19%, Solidarity 2% and Uasa 7%.
Ms Strydom emphasised that the chamber could not accede to different wages and terms and conditions of employment for people doing the same work purely because they belonged to different unions. “That would be disastrous for workplace relations. It is simply not tenable. It would create great strife, great disharmony and we can simply not afford that. ”
Meanwhile, labour expert Andrew Levy said on Friday that despite the first quarter of the year usually being quiet, settlements in the retail sector, as well as transport and security, could set the trend for the rest of the year.
However, the trend of an “upward tick in strike action” is likely to continue due to labour turbulence from “destabilising forces that you can trace back to (the shootings at) Marikana”.
This year was also likely to see difficulties within the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) resume to take a toll on the labour market.
This, along with elections, which could see worker s participate in election campaigns, was likely to cause “a little more turbulence in workplaces,” he said.
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), Cosatu’s largest affiliate, is engaged in a pitched battle with the leadership of the labour federation as it seeks to save suspended general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi as well as to prevent Cosatu from becoming a “labour desk” of the African National Congress. Numsa members resolved at a special national congress last month to move away from organising along industrial and sectoral lines, and instead organise across the “value chain” in manufacturing in order to increase the bargaining position of members.
Another source of conflict will be the Employment Tax Incentive Act, which came into effect on Wednesday. Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven said on Friday the federation remained “very angry at and totally opposed” to the act and could not rule out a legal challenge or returning to the streets.