South Africa

All that glitters: compromises in gold strike, AMCU claims conspiracy

By Greg Nicolson 5 September 2013

A day after the majority of employees in the gold industry went on strike, negotiations between unions and mining companies made slight headway. Two companies broke away from the collective bargaining process agreeing to an 8% wage increase. Gold producers and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) have shown they are willing to compromise, but there is still a long way to go if the industry is to avoid a protracted strike. Meanwhile, The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) smells a conspiracy. By GREG NICOLSON.

The settlements were reached on Wednesday when Village Main Reef and Pan African Resources applied to negotiate outside of the collective bargaining process that has the NUM and Chamber of Mines at loggerheads.

Evander and Tau Lekoa mines, which employ about 4,500 NUM members, reached a deal including an 8% increase in basic wages for category four and five workers, including rock drill operators and a 7.5% increase for category six to eight employees, including miners, artisans and officials.

“That the producers and the unions can find one another in the interests of preserving these operations indicates our mutual desire to achieve an affordable and sustainable settlement,” said the Chamber’s chief negotiator, Elize Strydom.

It was a “separate matter” from the main negotiations, said NUM spokesperson Lesiba Sheshoka. He was speaking as discussions continued between NUM and the Chamber of Mines, which is representing AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Rand Uranium, Harmony Gold and Sibanye Gold.

Village Main Reef and Pan African Resources decided to negotiate separately due to their small size and specific challenges, a common occurrence when certain mining houses want to reach an agreement while the situation remains deadlocked.

“The deal, which was struck under the auspices of the Chamber of Mines, recognises Village’s specific circumstances. Village is encouraged by the reaching of this settlement which will enable the preservation of the mine in the best interests of all stakeholders,” Village Main Reef said in a statement.

Sheshoka said the agreement does not affect the ongoing negotiations. He denied media reports that NUM has lowered its demands to a 10% wage increase, a claim made by the BBC and Business Day on Wednesday.

Reporters had misinterpreted General Secretary Frans Baleni’s comments that the union wants to find a middle ground while still achieving double-digit increases, Sheshoka added.

“We are still exactly where we were at the start of negotiations,” said the NUM spokesperson. The union wants an increase of R2,300 for surface workers and R3,000 for underground workers. Gold producers have offered 6.5% for category four and five workers, including rock drill operators, and a 6% increase for category six to eight employees.

Cosatu spokesperson, Patrick Craven, said the federation of trade unions is fully behind NUM’s demands.

“The mine employers can certainly not plead poverty. Top employers have continuously given themselves huge rewards. The highest paid executive directors in South Africa in 2009 were in mining companies – BHP Billiton (average R41-million a year), Anglo American (average R20.5-million), Lonmin (average R20-million) and Anglo Gold Ashanti (average R17.5-million). Last year the Gold Fields CEO pocketed R45 million,” Craven wrote in a statement.

Craven continued that these same CEOs joined the chorus of the outraged when NUM demanded that the Chamber of Mines paid surface workers a minimum of R7,000 a month (R84,000 a year) and underground and opencast workers a minimum of R8,000 (R96,000 a year).

“These ‘excessive’ demands would, if achieved, still leave the Goldfields CEO taking home 469 times the amount the NUM is claiming for skilled workers toiling in dangerous, unhealthy, hot and damp conditions kilometres underground!” said Craven.

The Chamber of Mines says its offer will mean entry-level workers get a minimum remuneration of R9,170 a month, but much of that includes medical benefits and food and housing allowances.

The NUM’s demands are impossible to meet while the industry is suffering and sustainability is already at risk, say mining companies. The Chamber of Mines offer is aimed at matching inflation and increased wages for entry-level workers. The latest consumer price index from Statistics SA puts inflation for those in the lowest expenditure quintile at 6.5% for the year between July 2012 and July 2013. The rise in cost of living for the miners is said to be higher, however.

AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa, whose union has still not made any agreements but wants a “living wage”, criticised gold producers and the NUM on Thursday evening and questioned what else might be at play.

“If Sheshoka is saying they will strike until Christmas and now they have somersaulted, it was not really a strike. It was just to say to their members they have fought and what and what,” he told Daily Maverick.

“So where did they get the mandate from their members (to accept the two agreements the day after striking)?” Mathunjwa asked.

He believes the mining companies and the NUM are collaborating to prevent the rival union from gaining ground in the gold sector as it has in the platinum belt.

AMCU is reported to have 17% of gold workers as members compared to the NUM’s reported 65%.

“The Chamber of Mines with the CEOs of these companies are in bed with NUM to break AMCU,” he said.

He suspects the strike talk is a front and the NUM and Chamber of Mines will settle on a previously agreed increase of 8-10% and force AMCU to either accept or embark on an unprotected strike, which will result in the dismissal of AMCU members.

“I still believe there is a bigger plan to stop AMCU from (organising) in gold mines, a concerted effort,” Mathunjwa reiterated.

NUM dismissed the allegations.

“I think he is just paranoid because inside we have evidence that many of the mining companies are working with him,” claimed Sheshoka.

He said NUM members are being heavily pressured to join AMCU. The spokesperson for the mining companies was unavailable to comment before deadline on Wednesday, but the claims and counterclaims between the unions illustrate the complex nature of the wage negotiations.

Since the unrest in 2012, the rivalry between NUM and AMCU has added extra complications and the battle is far from over. DM

Photo: A general shot of Driefontein Gold Mine shaft, located 70 km (43 miles) west of Johannesburg, is seen near Carletonville, September 4, 2013. A strike for higher pay hit production at most of South Africa’s gold mines on Wednesday, but the main union behind the stoppage said it was willing to relax some of its demands.The stoppage called by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) began at the evening shift on Tuesday, with many miners refusing to go underground. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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