Update: Late yesterday news broke of an “in principle” agreement on a new wage offer between Amcu and the platinum producers. According to www.platinumwagenegotiations.
For all his initial enthusiasm, Minister of Mineral Resources Ngoako Ramathlodi’s attempts to resolve the platinum strike met the same fate as those of the CCMA, the minister of labour and the Labour Court. The parties downing tools rejected the minister’s proposal to end the strike of nearly five months, and there does not seem to be an end yet in sight.
In an industrial relations environment where prominent unionists speak about compromise and the need for workers to be reasonable, this time workers aren’t backing down from their original demand of R12 500.
Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) president Joseph Mathunjwa says the union has revised its demand several times and lengthened the phasing-in period to achieve the desired salary; mining companies say they’ve adjusted their offer a number of times and won’t move from the figures they put on the table during direct talks with Amcu in April. Ramathlodi and others have expressed their frustration with the labour relations environment, which has no mechanism to end protracted strikes and force both parties to compromise. But perhaps the most frustration with the labour legislation comes from the 70 00 mineworkers on strike who have to starve and deprive their families to improve their living conditions. But where are the laws that regulate human dignity? That’s the question from workers who complain of living like animals.
To really understand the record 19-week strike, one has to see the trade union making the demand of a salary of R12 500 as peripheral to the strike itself.
Although the charismatic Mathunjwa has been cast as being central to the disputed wage demand, Amcu is not the militant or radical union it’s made out to be. Instead, the R12 500 demand has been placed front and centre by mineworkers. The cry for the now iconic figure of a basic salary of R12 500 was first made in early 2012 by striking rock drill operators (RDOs) at Impala Platinum. The demand spread to nearby Lonmin’s RDOs, who wanted their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), to take it up with the company’s management. What followed is now under scrutiny by the Farlam Commission of Inquiry; the NUM didn’t push for the R12 500 basic salary , the workers struck out alone and embarked on an unprotected strike and 44 people died, 34 of whom were shot by the police on August 16 that year.
Amid the fallout of from that day, forever ingrained in South Africa’s consciousness, came the recognition from workers for the need for a worker-controlled union that would be recognised by the department of labour and use legal avenues to pursue workers’ demands. Amcu, which had less than 20% membership on the platinum belt in 2012, quickly gained majority status in the world’s three largest platinum producers by late 2013.
During the fight for recognition and the goings on at the Farlam Commission, the call for a wage of R12 500 never died. When 70 000 Amcu members downed tools on January 23 2014, it was the culmination of months of organising and direct negotiations by the union with the platinum companies.
It’s not uncommon, especially around the Marikana area, to hear workers saying that giving up on the strike now and the demand for R12 500 would be a betrayal of the men who died on the koppie in Marikana for the very same demand almost two years ago.
It’s also a common sentiment among workers that if Amcu fails to deliver the wage demand, it will be removed as the majority union on the platinum belt. Workers have no doubt been emboldened by the removal of the entrenched NUM.
The protracted strike and the producers’ insistence that the R12 500 demand is unaffordable have revealed some interesting insights into the way the companies do business. The Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) was roped in to help Amcu crunch the numbers during the negotiations. The centre’s economists have also been looking into Lonmin’s finances for the Farlam Commission. The economists at the centre (who’ve also been accused by the ANC national executive committee of being foreign forces behind the strike) found evidence of all three platinum companies underselling their minerals below market prices. The cost of this over the past 10 years amounts to R15 billion. They’ve asked questions about possible transfer pricing by the mining houses, which they say have companies registered in tax havens. This would essentially mean the companies are selling platinum to themselves at a lower cost, avoiding tax and then selling it on to the world market at a higher price. The companies have denied this and have warned of possible legal action to repudiate the allegation.
Another study by researchers Gilad Isaacs and Andrew Bowman of Wits University highlighted that platinum companies could have raised workers’ salaries and developed mining communities during the boom years.
Shoving a microphone in front of a number of nameless, faceless mineworkers has reproduced the same soundbite for dozens of media houses: striking mineworkers and their families are starving. There’s no doubt workers are hungry and the prolonged strike has hit the communities around the mines and in the “labour sending areas” hard. The queues for food aid by Gift of the Givers and other charities are long. When walking around the informal settlements dotting the platinum belt, there are frequent requests for food and basic necessities. There’s also the real risk of malnutrition when the mines reopen and workers are too weak to begin making their trips down the long shafts again.
But sitting down with mineworkers for longer than the two minutes required for a quote, one realises that things aren’t quite so gloomy. Many of them rely on subsidence farming, herding small flocks or using their families’ tiny grants to get by.
The most common refrain echoed around the platinum belt is that mineworkers were barely scraping by before the strike, despite going underground for more than eight hours a day. Downing tools and not earning the meagre salary their families rely on is a small price to pay for the living wage demand, and which they believe is within reach.
Violence and intimidation
This is the tricky and unpleasant part of an interview with anyone on the platinum belt. “Violence” and “intimidation” are two words that are frequently related to striking mineworkers in the Marikana area, and are used to dismiss workers as savages capable of unthinking aggression.
The responses to this question are varying and vague. Amcu leaders deny any form of violence and insist the police and media are biased against the union. Many Amcu members describe the union as peaceful.
Seven people have died since the companies started sending SMSes to workers encouraging them to accept their offer and break the strike. It’s not hard to see the enormous danger for the people invested in this strike to have some workers report for duty. The sacrifice of being without a salary for almost five months and the feeling that the companies are on the cusp of giving in has set the stakes very high.
Local activists admit there is some level of fear and intimidation associated with the strike. Interestingly, former police minister Nathi Mthethwa, who arrived in Marikana the day Lonmin reopened its operations, promised swift action for the people behind the violence and intimidation, and claimed their identities were known to the police. But there have been no arrests thus far and the people instigating the violence remain shadowy figures.
All companies being equal
Negotiations with Lonmin, Impala Platinum and Anglo American Platinum have been in a joint forum during the strike, with the companies even sharing a publicist, turning it into an almost de facto central bargaining platform. But seasoned unionists have expressed dismay at the levelling of competition among the platinum giants by bringing all three companies to a standstill at once. Veteran negotiators say the companies would have been under more pressure to concede to workers’ demands if their rivals were operating at full steam.
But perhaps most contentious of all has been the SMS campaign run by the companies, which started in late April after negotiations broke down yet again. “SMSes kill people” are the chilling words from local activists. The campaign essentially told workers there was a fair wage offer on the table and jobs could be lost if they refused to return to work. It gave them an option to return to work, to reply to the text message, or to phone a call centre to have the offer explained to them.
Mineworkers say they ignored the SMSes or deleted them. It’s hard to find anyone with the offending text message on their cellphone, but the outrage over the messages lingers.
The anger is particularly directed at Lonmin and its CEO Ben Magara. While mineworkers at Implats and Amplats complain about the management, the anger towards Lonmin is unrivalled. Workers accuse the company of being thoroughly corrupt, claiming they even need to bribe their shift bosses when applying for leave.
It’s at the stage of talks breaking down when companies start discussing shaft closures and job losses, and this time is no exception. The spectre of job losses has been a central part of the companies’ communication with Amcu members, but the union doesn’t seem too fazed by their threat and has warned repeatedly that any job cuts or shaft closures will bring about further industrial action.
Amcu now has to go back to its members to get a renewed mandate from them for possible talks in the coming weeks. Ramathlodi says parties are closer now than before his involvement. The two sticking points remaining are the period in which R12 500 will be reached and the housing allowance. The minister has suggested the parties go back to the Labour Court after the unusual measure of mediation by the court was put on hold during his task team’s intervention.
Amcu might be the sideshow in this strike, but its telling that the longest industrial action in post-apartheid history has almost nothing to do with the ANC or its left-wing alliance partners. The tripartite alliance that has given voice to popular struggles for so long is instead being seen as part of the problem. Mineworkers complain government can’t be a neutral role player in this dispute given the shares in mining many ANC bigwigs have. The ANC NEC has come out strongly against the strike, accusing foreign nationals of stirring unrest on the platinum belt. The NEC says strikes are ideological but about collective bargaining. But the thousands of people who have suffered for nearly five months without pay − and are determined to change the structure of our mining industry forever − would disagree.