IN THE turf war over union membership in the platinum sector, one employee matters more than any other: the rock drill operator.
Rock drillers are the lifeblood of mining operations. Without their back-breaking and dangerous work, operations simply come to a halt.
They are responsible for drilling the ore from which platinum is retrieved. Depending on the grades, companies need about 20 tons of ore to produce a single ounce of platinum. It is also the rock drillers who are at most risk of dying in a rockfall, as so often happens in South Africa’s mines.
At Impala and Lonmin, where a union turf war has claimed at least 50 lives so far this year, unrest started when rock drillers, who are often from Pondoland in the Eastern Cape and parts of Lesotho, demanded higher wages from management outside the official bargaining process.
Their skills are in demand: there are very few young people who are prepared to do this kind of work. Their age group is usually from 40 years and upwards, which also makes them very influential as people tend to look up to their elders.
“It does not sit in everyone’s pants to do this job and it’s becoming quite a sought-after skill. I think companies and unions should bear this in mind when negotiating for these people,” said Stanlib analyst Kobus Nell.
He believed that the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) was able to gain popularity with rock drillers on the platinum fields because the drillers felt the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was not adequately negotiating their salaries.
But other observers believe the rock drillers’ importance in the workplace has been elevated by unscrupulous trade union leaders who are making ridiculous wage demands.
During a strike earlier this year at Impala Platinum, rock drillers demanded a net salary of R9,000.
They are now demanding R12,500 at Lonmin, up from the R4,000 that they have been taking home. Impala adapted salaries for a range of workers to end the six-week stoppage that cost it an estimated R2bn in revenue.
Chris Jacobs, OIM International director and specialist in conflict resolution in the mining industry, said growing militancy has been fostered by leaders who are in it for themselves and not for workers’ interests.
“The situation needs to be arrested very quickly because it has a very strong potential of spilling over to other mines. I know that in the case of NUM and AMCU employers can’t interfere with the unions but they need to protect their employees irrespective of which union they belong to.
“Employers should engage with unions and prepare the ground for parties to talk to each other,” he said.
Employers should make it their responsibility, through workshops, that agreements at national level be brought to the shop floor so that workers are on the same wavelength.
“A forum involving all stakeholders like workers, security people, employers and the community should be created,” he said.
Workers pay price of weak labour system
GOVERNMENT is reaping the whirlwind of tacitly condoning violent protests, according to labour analysts, reports Tina Weavind.
Andrew Levy, head of labour relations consultancy Andrew Levy Employment, said he believed the rock drill operators at Lonmin’s Marikana mine were ultimately responsible for calling the strike and for enforcing it.
However, there is also a strong union issue at play, and Levy was not surprised violence flared up with the two organisations involved.
For some time there has been a sense that NUM members are dissatisfied with the results their leaders are getting in negotiations and lines of hierarchy have been eroding in the union.
Levy described AMCU as a “grievance union” in which labour action is generally created by finding or creating a grievance and escalating an angry focus on it.
Loane Sharp, labour economist at Adcorp, said the most significant fault lies in the failure of labour relations mechanisms, such as the bargaining councils, the CCMA and the Labour Court, to provide the conciliation and mediation they were designed to. The World Economic Forum rated South Africa the eighth-worst country in the world (132nd out of 139 countries) in labour/employer conflict.
Another issue is that union membership is saturated across the three sectors of mining, public service and manufacturing. When new unions come in, competition is fierce.
Union membership is also a declining trend around the world, not least in South Africa. The average age of a union member is 43, while the average job seeker is 27. The older, unionised group tends to be mistrustful of management and seeks protection through collective action and industry-wide agreements. The younger generation is less tied to employers and seeks individualised remuneration.
Sharp said unions use two strategies to get new members or retain existing members. The first, used by the likes of the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), is to win members over because of the long-term sustainable benefits they offer. Such benefits might include retirement products, loans for education or housing, and various insurance products. The second way, used by the likes of AMCU, is intimidation.
Because the platinum industry is in such a predicament at the moment, with an over-saturated market and slowing demand from China and Europe, several mines have been closed or put into care and maintenance until conditions improve.
Another problem is the governing tripartite alliance, which creates a conflict of interest and has hamstrung institutions like Nedlac, where very little of importance is achieved.
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