Business Maverick

LABOUR PAINS

Sibanye cries foul after Amcu rejects wage offer accepted by other unions

Sibanye cries foul after Amcu rejects wage offer accepted by other unions
From left: Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman. (Photo: Michele Spatari / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | NUM General Secretary William Mabapa. (Photo: Michele Spatari / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman has accused the Amcu union of not acting in its members’ interests after it rejected a five-year wage offer that other unions accepted at the company’s platinum operations. The NUM is among the unions that accepted — it says this does not signal a falling-out with its former arch-rival.

The diversified precious metals producer Sibanye-Stillwater said last week that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Uasa union had accepted its wage offer, which will see pay increases roughly in line with inflation for the next five years. But the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) declared a dispute and the matter is now headed to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).  

Speaking to Business Maverick on the sidelines of the Joburg Mining Indaba, Sibanye CEO Neal Froneman got to the point in his typically blunt manner. 

“Let’s cut through all the horse manure,” he said. “Amcu is trying to delay a settlement for whatever reason. Their shop stewards — we know, because we’ve engaged — are very supportive of what we’ve put on the table. They are actually acting not in the interests of their members.

“We agreed up front that we would bargain in good faith, we would have four meetings and by the end of the fourth meeting, we would be at our final decision. They keep on moving the goalposts. It’s obscure.”

Amcu President Joseph Mathunjwa could not immediately be reached for comment but he has accused Sibanye in the past of arrogance when it comes to wage talks. Still, aside from the three-month strike at Sibanye’s gold operations earlier this year in which Amcu and NUM joined forces, Mathunjwa and his union during the past year have not shown their previous appetite for downing tools. Amcu and other unions have signed several five-year wage agreements without strike action, notably but not exclusively in the platinum sector.  

But Amcu seems to have a special dislike for Froneman and Sibanye, and that might be driving its agenda in the platinum sector wage talks. Froneman’s mostly share-based R300-million remuneration package last year has had Amcu and other unions seething against the backdrop of rising inequality.

NUM and Amcu’s show of unity over the past year or so has also given rise to talk of “Numco” and has been a good thing for labour and industry alike. Their often lethal enmity in the past was a flashpoint for labour and social unrest and a key risk factor to investors. So, the burying of the hatchet removes a key risk.

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NUM General Secretary William Mabapa told Business Maverick at the indaba that the fact that his guys had accepted a wage agreement with Sibanye — while Amcu has pointedly not — did not signal a falling-out between the two unions. 

“There is no tension between NUM and Amcu,” he said.  

Mabapa, like Froneman, is a straight talker and he said NUM’s members had simply accepted the offer.

“In this instance, we went to the mass meetings and our members accepted the offer. Our members gave us a mandate,” he said.  

He said the difference between platinum and gold mining was the wage gap, with its members in the latter earning far less than its members in the former — a point he also made during a panel session at the indaba.

This is all happening as the cost of living in South Africa soars, especially for fuel and food prices, which takes a huge toll on the poor and the working class. This would normally stoke wage demands. But it can also make a breadwinner with several dependants think twice before downing tools and potentially going several weeks or longer without a pay cheque.

Mabapa hinted at this when, in response to a question at the indaba, he said unions were now signing five-year wage agreements because members were getting tired of “fighting every two or three years”.

It remains to be seen if Amcu members are spoiling for a fight — meaning a strike — at Sibanye’s platinum operations. It is the majority union by far in those shafts, so if its members down tools, they will effectively be shut, with consequences for the wider economy, including lost export revenue. But a resolution may herald an extended period of union peace on the Platinum Belt, which is being rocked by community unrest and outright criminality, and could do with one less headache.

It will be of more than passing interest to see how this unfolds. DM/BM

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