Carletonville - Thousands of South African gold miners went on strike on Tuesday after wage talks broke down, threatening to cause millions of rand in lost output in the troubled sector.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) - which represents the bulk of affected workers - called for stoppages following its members' rejection of a 6.5-percent wage hike last week.
“Our members have not clocked in for the night shift at several mines in the Carletonville area. The strike is on,” Mbuyiseli Hibana, NUM regional secretary general, told AFP.
Hibana estimated that around 14 000 miners had downed tools in the gold mining town of Carletonville, south of Johannesburg.
Mines in the area had heightened security on Tuesday, with armed private guards manning the gates.
Barbed wire was thrown around the main entrance of one of AngloGold Ashanti's mines.
The gold sector stands to lose 761kg in production each day, worth around $34-million, gold industry spokeswoman Charmane Russell told AFP.
The night shift at all but one of the seven affected producers - which include Harmony, AngloGold Ashanti, and Sibanye Gold - were hit by the strike.
Only six of 23 mines reported a normal shift and less than 20 percent of workers showed up at 12 “severely affected” mines, according to an update late on Tuesday.
The strike shut down production at two mines, while an underground fire had temporarily halted operations at another.
According to the producers, the rejected final offer involves 107 000 workers of different categories, of which the NUM represented 63 percent.
No exact attendance figures were given but between 10 and 12 percent of workers were said to work the night shift.
The NUM claims membership of around 80 000 in the industry which, in 2012, employed just over 140 000 workers.
“We will go until Christmas,” NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka told AFP earlier on Tuesday.
Gold workers are demanding wage increases of between 60 and 100 percent, denouncing company executives' high salaries while workers live in poverty in a country with one of the world's biggest wealth gaps.
“The pay that we are asking for is not high. It is normal and reasonable,” said Seshoka.
“If there are bosses that sit in air-conditioned offices earning millions a year, why can't they (miners) earn R7 000 basic a month?”
The strikes will add to the pressure building on Africa's largest economy, where at least 75 000 workers in the construction and automobile industries have downed tools.
Vehicle export figures for August fell 22.9 percent, linked to the strike at seven major car makers now in its third week.
The stoppages have become a frequent occurrence during annual wage negotiations, but this year come amid sluggish growth and rampant unemployment.
South Africa was for decades the world's largest gold producer, but its share of production has shrunk from 68 percent in 1970 to six percent of the world total last year.
Falling gold prices, a declining grade of ore and some of the world's deepest mines are all factors that have constrained gold firms' profits.
In part because of strikes, gold production last year fell by 12.4 percent to 167.2 tons - its lowest level in over a century - and cost the economy half a billion dollars.
But workers insist their dramatic pay demands are justified after a history of cheap black labour built the continent's most sophisticated economy.
But as rival unions inflate wage demands in competition for members, labour leaders have been warned against creating unrealistic expectations.
The industry's latest offer guarantees average pay of R9 170 a month and profit-sharing schemes.
The offer did not “talk to us as mine workers, concerning the kind of work we are doing underground”, said Vuyo Mnqandi, a worker at AngloGold's TauTona mine.
If the downward spiral continues, the gold sector may employ only 60 000 people by 2020, according to the Chamber of Mines. - Sapa-AFP