The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) strike in the platinum belt has now been going for three months. The union was locked in discussions with Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin late on Tuesday night. These discussions will determine whether employees go back to work or the longest strike in the democratic era rolls on. Either way, it’s going to be costly. By GREG NICOLSON.
The stakes are high. As of Tuesday, employees had lost R6.3 billion in earnings and companies over R14.2 billion worth of platinum, according to platinumwagenegotiations.co.za. Negotiations have been stalled since early March when AMCU revised its demands of an immediate R12,500 basic wage to the figure being met over four years. During the standoff, the union’s been marching – to the Union Buildings, to the platinum companies – trying to pressure a revised increase.
On Tuesday night, Charmane Russell, speaking for the platinum producers, said discussions on the offer announced by the platinum producers last Thursday were still ongoing and talks would resume on Wednesday. Impala’s Johan Theron has been quoted as saying, “AMCU is not happy with the offer; they did not accept it and wanted more.” Union leaders weren’t available to speak on Tuesday night.
The new offer features increases of between 7.5% and 10%. By July 2017 entry-level underground employees will receive cash remuneration of R12,500, including basic wages and allowances, such as holiday and living out expenses. In identical statements from Amplats and Implats, the platinum producers said they want to end the crippling strikes that have brought “untold hardships” on employees, their families, communities and producers.
The statement continued: “The company notes that it can ill afford the revised settlement offer, which represents an increase from the previous 7.5% to 9% CCMA offer, and the 7.5% to 8.5% offer made prior to the commencement of the strike. These concessions have been made in good faith through various attempts over the last two months to end this industrial action.”
Accepting the offer may be difficult for AMCU leaders, who have been fierce in their demands for higher wages and a transformed industry. Firstly, increases are understood to be weighted in favour of entry-level workers, with lower rises for more skilled workers. Secondly, AMCU wants a basic salary for entry-level workers of R12,500 but, according to a breakdown in pay provided by Implats, the new offer, minus holiday, a 13th cheque contribution, and living out allowances, entry-level workers will receive a basic pay of R9,250 a month by July 2017.
AMCU gained popularity in the region during the 2012 labour unrest and took the majority union mantle from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). It’s a big test for AMCU, needing to prove its ability to improve the livelihoods of workers while NUM tries to reclaim its position.
During the strike, AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa has consistently bemoaned the living conditions and treatment of miners, which he says have hardly changed since Apartheid. In their offer, the platinum producers say long-term issues of migrancy and living conditions will be addressed at company-level by joint task teams.
AMCU has established a strike fund to support members and organised 260 buses to ferry them home over Easter. Rather than covering the lost income, the fund will be used to support general services like medical care. Some members decided not to go home as they didn’t want to face their families empty-handed. The mineworkers arrived back in the platinum belt early on Tuesday morning and still need to meet to consider the improved wage offer.
Workers Daily Maverick spoke to were still divided over when they would go back to work. Andy Matwa, from Amplats, said he thought the strike would last longer. Matwa didn’t take the free ride home this weekend. “You know, we don’t have money but we accept it,” he said. “We can’t go home and leave our problems behind. We have to deal with our problems.” He also pointed out that Mathunjwa, sometimes criticised as authoritarian, was acting on orders from members.
Madiba Bukhali, also from Amplats, said the strike could end this week and employees would be ready to go back to work on Friday or Monday. AMCU members are hoping for a higher raise than currently offered, but they’ll wait for feedback from union leadership and make a decision thereafter.
Government has been relatively quiet on the issue, which is no doubt hurting the economy, but Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant is reported to have been holding separate meetings with the parties recently. Official discussions at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) broke down without any hint of a resolution.
Platinum producers have issued warnings that AMCU’s demands cannot be met and will damage the industry, leading to disinvestment, closure of mines, and job losses. “The Rustenburg resource is not what it used to be,” Anglo American CEO Mark Cutifani told BDlive recently. “I don’t think that’s where our best skill set sits. That’s why I’ve been quite vocal saying we should consider taking a step back from Rustenburg. We should be focusing on the more mechanised operations, which is what I think we do much better, and allow someone who has a better skill set in those types of mines to run those kinds of assets.”
Asked to clarify the comments, Amplats spokesperson Mpumi Sithole played down the option: “Anglo American Platinum’s Rustenburg operations remain marginal, therefore the company continues to consider a number of options as part of the ongoing review of the portfolio which takes into account the interests of all stakeholders.”
Lonmin CEO Ben Magara told marching AMCU members at the beginning of April the union’s demands could not be met. “The world is watching us take each other into poverty… We need to accept the realities.”
The strike has taken a clear toll on the miners. SMSes sent by workers to employers, displayed on www.platinumwagenegotions.co.za, express disenchantement with AMCU’s leadership, which they say is harming livelihoods. Multiple messages call for the army and police to be deployed to stop intimidation. Lonmin claims more than 1,000 AMCU members have failed to collect antiretroviral treatment from their clinics since the strikes began.
Today’s discussions will show how far parties are willing to compromise, how committed they are to their stances, and who is willing to call a bluff. It’s the most important moment in the history of AMCU and could decide the future of the Rustenburg platinum belt. Either way, it’s going to be costly. DM
Photo: Joseph Mathunjwa addresses AMCU miners in front of the Union Building in Pretoria, 5 March 2014. (Greg Nicolson)