Aggrieved Blyvoor mine workers stage underground sit-in ‘because they want to join the NUM’
In the wake of the hostage drama underground at the Gold One mine in Ekurhuleni, hundreds of mine workers were said to be refusing to come to the surface at Blyvoor on the West Rand. But this time, it is the National Union of Mineworkers — which says its members were coerced at Gold One — leading the protest at a mine that was wracked by labour unrest in 2021.
Labour unrest involving a sit-in underground erupted again at a Gauteng gold mine, this time on Wednesday at Blyvoor on the West Rand near Carletonville — the scene of violence and disruptions in 2021.
National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesman Livhuwani Mammburu told Daily Maverick that the miners remained underground on Thursday morning and that initial estimates of 230 had now been raised to 800.
NUM had initially said that about 230 mine workers at Blyvoor who went underground for the morning shift on Wednesday refused to come to the surface. The union said their main grievance is that they want to join the NUM at a mine with a closed-shop agreement with an in-house union.
“The employees have resolved not to come from underground because they want to join the NUM. Around 230 guys are underground … the morning shift took the key of the cage, preventing the afternoon shift from coming down,” Maditse Tshose, the NUM treasurer in Carletonville, told Daily Maverick.
He said the workers were also angered at the non-payment of incentives and bonuses.
The company could not immediately be reached for comment.
However, an industry source not affiliated with the mine who is familiar with the industry in the area confirmed that a sit-in was taking place and that a similar protest action had occurred from Friday until Saturday.
“It’s more about incentives not being paid. There was a mass meeting last Thursday and the management told them there was no money. There was also a sit-in on Friday that lasted until Saturday. There is a sentiment among workers to join the NUM but the main reason seems to be the non-payment of incentives,” the source said.
Daily Maverick was unable to independently confirm the motivation for the protest, which comes in the wake of the hostage drama late last month at Gold One in Ekurhuleni In that saga, the NUM says its members were coerced to remain underground for four days by the members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).
Amcu maintains it was mostly a protest by miners who wanted to join its union, but the family members of some of those who returned to the surface and miners themselves who have spoken to the media say they were held hostage.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Tears and joy as mine workers return safely to the surface after Gold One hostage drama
To defuse that situation in the face of what it says were attacks on its members, the NUM this week said it was terminating its closed-shop agreement — which excludes minority unions from bargaining — at Gold One.
Read more in Daily Maverick: NUM terminates closed-shop agreement at East Rand’s Gold One as violence continues
Now it says miners are staging an underground sit-in at another gold mine in the face of a closed-shop agreement.
Blyvoor is not a big mine, but its unfolding story can be seen as a microcosm of the wider gold sector in South Africa and its relationship with labour.
Blyvoor shut in 2012 because of a violent wildcat strike and subsequently went into liquidation. The mine was rebuilt in recent years after it was asset-stripped by zama zamas, thanks in large part to capital raised from foreign investors wooed by miner Peter Skeet, a flamboyant risk-taker who died in April this year.
In 2021, the mine’s reboot hit a snag — shortly after sending its first gold bars in almost a decade to the Rand Refinery — after tension soared between the in-house Blyvoor Workers Union and NUM. Wels Sempe, a company director and leader of the Blyvoor Workers’ Union, was murdered on 2 March 2021 while en route to work when his bakkie stopped at an intersection.
Tension at the mine seemed to have cooled since, and the gold price this year has been high by historical standards while the rand has generally been weak, a state of affairs that has boosted the bottom line of domestic gold producers.
Unions are well aware of this, and it might help explain the anger in the shafts at Blyvoor.
This situation could soon be resolved, or Blyvoor could once again be on the verge of collapse. Regardless, it’s another worrying sign of emerging labour unrest at a time when relations between business and unions in the mining sector have been relatively stable. DM