AS THE mining industry gets ready for the start of wage talks in the gold sector on Tuesday, employers are preparing to draw a line in the sand to end the wave of wildcat strikes that has crippled mining for the past 18 months.
Unions have made unprecedented wage demands of up to 100% increases, while the industry says it is facing its toughest time to date. The Chamber of Mines says that even with gold at a record R509,783/kg in the fourth quarter of last year, 40% of the sector is either loss-making or marginal. The gold price has since fallen to about R400,000/kg.
On Monday, gold producers and unions meet for a pre-negotiations workshop at which it is hoped a protocol will be signed for talks at which demands will be formally tabled on Tuesday.
A mining executive said "there was a feeling the mining industry had become its own worst enemy" because companies had given in to the demands of illegal strikers.
Mining companies are determined to break that pattern.
The examples of two recent unprocedural strikes which led to large numbers of workers being axed are being upheld as evidence of a hardening response.
A mining executive said last week that the dismissal of striking workers at Anglo Gold Ashanti’s Moab Khotsong mine in April, and a mass dismissal last month at Glencore’s Steelpoort chromium mine were intended "to send a message" to the unions.
Industry players would not comment on whether this was an orchestrated strategy. Both strikes involved the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which has grown exponentially in the gold, platinum and associated metals sectors since January last year.
At Glencore’s Steelpoort mine about 1,200 workers were axed after an unprocedural strike in which they made allegations of racism against the company. The union has rejected an offer of independent investigators to probe the claims, on the grounds that it wants the strikers unconditionally reinstated. The company says it cannot accede, and has started the processes of recruiting new employees.
At the Moab Khotsong mine in the Vaal area, about 539 employees were dismissed in April after an unprocedural strike to demand a higher premium for Saturday work.
The strike which led to dismissals at Steelpoort was the third in two months.
In an accord brokered by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe last week, employers made a commitment to "follow proper labour relations procedures in the spirit of the law", while trade unions pledged to "adhere to legal procedures for marches and protest action" and to "manage all labour disputes within the legal framework of the country".
However, Amcu did not sign the accord, citing a number of conditions, including the reinstatement of the Glencore workers.
African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe reflected the growing impatience, saying on Friday: "What the world sees is Marikana, De Doorns, Satawu (South African Transport and Allied Workers Union) strikes and every strike accompanied with violence.
"Are we allowing the collapse of collective bargaining and (letting) anarchy take over?"
In another development, Lonmin has lodged an affidavit with the Labour Court seeking "an independent and closed ballot … to determine to which trade union, if any, employees are affiliated".