Johannesburg - South Africa’s three major gold producers have been spared from potential disruptions after the Labour Court ruled yesterday that a proposed strike by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) was unlawful.
The temporary ruling compels Amcu to return to court in March to show cause why the interdict should not be made a permanent order of the court.
Amcu, though a minority union in the gold sector with a 19 percent share of membership, is pushing for the same R12 500 basic wage demand it has made at platinum mines.
The Labour Court in Johannesburg threw a spanner in the works of the union’s orchestrated move to bring both the platinum and gold sectors to a halt to leverage its demands.
The ruling is a temporary relief for the mining companies as Amcu is expected to broadly argue on March 14 that the interdict would compromise the constitutional right of workers to engage in strike action.
“This is a temporary setback. We will come back to court to fight for our constitutional right to strike,” Jeff Mphahlele, the Amcu general secretary, said.
Employees who participated in an illegal strike could be subject to disciplinary sanction, including dismissals, for misconduct, the Chamber of Mines stressed yesterday.
In 2012, Impala Platinum fired 17 000 workers for a six-week illegal strike, although about 15 000 workers were subsequently reinstated.
Harmony Gold, AngloGold Ashanti and Sibanye Gold had sought the injunction because they felt Amcu members were already benefiting from a two-year wage agreement reached with other unions last year.
Those Amcu members who packed the court gallery appeared visibly disappointed at the ruling and chanted “asijiki”, (“we are not turning back”), outside the court.
“Our members were hoping that things will go their way… there will be no wildcat strikes,” Mphahlele said.
Elize Strydom, the Chamber of Mines’s chief negotiator, told journalists that the interdict was welcome, and “wildcat strikes will not be tolerated”.
Judge Edwin Molahleli read out Judge Hamilton Cele’s ruling in less than five minutes to a packed court room. Judge Cele was in court in Durban.
The court ordered Amcu leaders to explain the outcome of the ruling to its members via text message, in hostels, and to distribute the contents of the court papers.
In its text message, the union was ordered to indicate that the Labour Court had interdicted the strike which was planned for January 23, and that workers were supposed to report for work yesterday.
The union was also ordered not to incite members to go on strike. Amcu will incur the costs of the proceedings.
Gold shares gave up some of Wednesday’s gains yesterday despite the court ruling.
AngloGold initially rose 3.87 percent to a seven-month high of R169.80 but shares fell 2.27 percent to close at R159.40 yesterday; Sibanye Gold dropped 2.04 percent to R14.86; and Harmony slumped by 4.02 percent to R31.
“We are satisfied with the court ruling, our focus is on peace and stability and making sure that everyone goes to work,” Strydom said.
She added that the lines of communication between the union and the mining companies were open.
However, if union members went on strike, they would be guilty of misconduct.
“We will do what we can in terms of the law,” Strydom insisted.
A strike would further hurt the gold producers, whose operations are old and marginal.
Mphahlele said all was not lost for Amcu, and that the union would have a second chance when the matter returned to court in March.
Production has ground to a halt at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum and Lonmin, the three biggest producers, where Amcu has been on strike since January 23.
On Wednesday the companies offered Amcu a three-year wage deal comprising increases of up to 9 percent.
Amcu membership, which constitutes a majority at the mines, rejected the offer yesterday and the strike continues.
“The employer hasn’t demonstrated it is serious about our demands,” Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa said by telephone.
Fears that the strike may spread were confirmed yesterday with the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) announcing that it would down tools at a smelter owned by Amplats from next Wednesday.
“We will give notice to strike next week,” Steven Nhlapo, a Numsa official, said.
The union is demanding pay increases of as much as 10 percent and a R2 500 raise in the basic wage of the lowest-paid workers.
Numsa is the largest union at Amplats’s refineries and smelters, with 1 800 members. – Additional reporting by Bloomberg