South Africa

Platinum strikes: to AMCU it’s about more than just the money

By Greg Nicolson 22 January 2014

Around 80,000 workers will down tools on Thursday at the world's three top platinum producers. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) president Joseph Mathunjwa wants to fight an unjust system. Employers want to save their profits. Will we see strikes like those of 2012? By GREG NICOLSON.

Every year, there’s another pay dispute in the mining industry. They come around so often, it’s hard to remember whether members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) want 10% in the gold sector or AMCU wants R12,500 in platinum. For Joseph Mathunjwa, it’s a fight against the system. Black workers are still being paid according to the framework that existed under Jan Smuts and Hendrik Verwoerd, says the AMCU president over the phone before another looming strike in the platinum sector. Profits are flown overseas while local workers are struggling to beat the poverty line, he says. “It has to change. It cannot continue this way.”

AMCU members will embark on a protected strike at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum (Implats), and Lonmin on Thursday for the elusive “living wage”. The union’s immediate goals are measurable – percentages, allowances and monthly salaries. But its all part of the real aim, to take down what Mathunjwa calls the “Apartheid system of salaries”. AMCU’s position couldn’t be further from what mining companies are saying.

Employers say the platinum industry is already stretched and the strikes could result in more job losses. Last year, Amplats announced a restructuring plan billed as crucial to the company’s survival. It included job losses and mothballing unproductive mines. After consultations with government and unions it cut planned retrenchments from 14,000 to 3,300.

Amplats CEO, Chris Griffith, said in a statement on Tuesday, “A strike will completely undermine the progress we have made in the last few months and also increase the possibility of further job losses. We appeal to the union and to our employees to understand that the company simply cannot afford the increases that the unions are currently demanding. A strike will impact negatively on employees, their families, communities, our company and the country as a whole.” Amplats has been the only company where negotiations have positively continued, says Mathunjwa.

Despite months of talking, AMCU’s demands remain distant from what the companies are offering, generally increases of around 8.5% and 7.5%. Implats explains its position: “The Impala offer will increase the minimum guaranteed employee remuneration (basic wage + holiday allowance + accommodation allowance + pension contribution) from R7,996 to R10,017 a month for surface workers over the time period; and from R8,697 to R10,896 a month for underground workers.” That’s above CPI (although its commonly said inflation is higher in mining communities) and bonuses are added to those figures.

AMCU wants a minimum basic wage for surface-level workers of R11,500 and underground workers R12,500 plus other allowances. “This demand equates to more than double the current wage bill,” says Impala.

Mathunjwa knows the pitfalls of striking. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. Going on strike might give platinum producers, already facing difficult circumstances with disappointing prices and demand, reason to close marginal shafts. Accepting the status quo, however, means accepting an unjust system where miners make a pittance.

Platinum prices have risen this year on the predictable threat of strikes. According to a Bloomberg poll, the mineral’s price is expected to rise 13% in 2014 due to increased demand from car manufacturers and the threat of reduced supply because of South African strikes. According to government, industrial action in the spring of 2012 cost local producers as much as R15 billion or 44,000 ounces.

Government is worried another prolonged strike, like those of 2012, will harm the economy. It’s an election year and the state wants jobs, that means achieving much higher levels of economic growth. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told SAFM on Monday the platinum industry should “get around the table”. “We can least afford another round of strikes that will act as a destabilisation to the platinum sector, which has had increasing difficulties over the last 18 months,” said Gordhan. While the World Bank has predicted a better GDP figure this year, SA Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus has already warned that the global economic crisis is not yet over.

But unions, of course, have their own issues to deal with. The violence on the platinum belt has cooled, but AMCU is still facing off with its rival, the NUM. After a 75-day strike, NUM last week accepted a 9.5% increase for core workers and 8.5% for non-core workers at Northam Platinum. AMCU has taken control of the platinum industry from the NUM and cannot be seen to settle for less than its rival. In 2012, workers sent a clear message to their unions. They want a union that fights hard for the wages they believe they deserve. The two unions are now fighting on a tightrope to see who can deliver the highest wages without causing mass retrenchments.

AMCU also has its own issues to deal with. Its meteoric rise during the 2012 unrest on the platinum belt seemed too good to be true and now members are complaining that Mathunjwa and AMCU are benefiting those close to them while neglecting their members and abandoning promises.

Mathunjwa argues that the leaders of the disgruntled group (we’re still unsure how big it is) have risen from grievances during workers’ redeployments from the Amplats Thembelani mine. He believes those members simply want to champion the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP), closely linked to workers’ committees and who are angry at having to work normal jobs and adhere to AMCU’s non-political stance. Some analysts are already worried that if workers leave AMCU and go back to their committees, chaos could ensue.

While AMCU is called a “militant” union, allegedly linked to murders related to its fight with the NUM, the 2012 strikes showed that workers have enough agency to go it alone. Things have been relatively settled since AMCU took over the platinum sector and the union has shown it prefers protected strikes. As most workers in the platinum industry down tools this week, the strike will be guided by one question. Do workers believe it’s time to stand up to an unjust system and fight for what they believe they’re worth or do they believe that they will lose their jobs as mining companies and the economy suffer? DM

Photo: Joseph Mathunjwa (R), president of South Africa’s Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), arrives to address members of the mining community during a rally in Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg January 19, 2014. (REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

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