Johannesburg - The once all powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) will look at various ways to grow its membership numbers over the next three days.
The union is holding a central committee meeting which is going to examine issues impacting on its numbers and how to remain relevant in an ever changing labour market.
The NUM, which was the biggest union in the country until a couple of years ago, has taken a massive blow with the formation of breakaway union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), as well as ongoing retrenchments in the mining industry. It lost up tens of thousands of members to Amcu after being accused by members of being a sweetheart union to business and the African National Congress.
NUM general secretary Frans Baleni told Independent Newspapers on Tuesday that while the union would continue to focus on mining, it was looking at the construction and energy sectors to expand its membership base.
Besides the low level of unionisation in these sectors, it also makes sense for the union to focus on them because they have been earmarked by government as some of the areas to expand the economy and create jobs. During the past five years, the government invested R1-trillion in new infrastructure to provide water, energy, transport, sanitation, schools and clinics and internet connections. This number will significantly increase over the next years.
“We are working on the numbers and trying to recover. One of the untapped areas is construction,” he said.
Only 16% of workers in the construction sector are unionised. If the NUM can increase its representation to 20%, it will have an extra 70 000 members. The sector is also considered vulnerable because only around 30% of those employed have permanent jobs, while the rest are temporarily employed moving between building projects.
The NUM is currently attempting to develop a system with the relevant government departments and state-owned enterprises to move workers to a new building site en masse once a project is completed instead of them having to again look for jobs.
On the energy sector, the government is planning a radical transformation focusing on coal, solar, wind, hydro, gas and nuclear energy.
While the NUM supports the changes, it has spoken out against a focus on developing the country’s nuclear energy.
“It will cost R1-trililion. Where will we get that money? Considering the creativity of some of our comrades, that amount will double,” Baleni said. The union also has many safety concerns.
Baleni believes although mining companies are considering further retrenchments following a five-month strike in the platinum sector and the declining gold sector, there is a future in the industry to grow the union’s numbers again. As an example, the country has 48-billion tons of coal reserves which means the fossil fuel can be mined for another 300 years.
Besides membership figurers, the central committee will discuss a number of issues including reviewing collective bargaining and how the NUM negotiates salary increases.
Since the platinum strike, the NUM has been under more pressure to only focus on increasing wages, instead of increasing allowances as well, which results in companies paying a lesser amount for basic wages. In order for Amcu to get a higher increase for its members, the union agreed to freeze some allowances for the second and third year of its recent wage deal.