File image: Reuters

South Africa's gold mining companies have been hit by union demands for wage hikes but the industry has little room to budge as current collective agreements do not expire until the middle of next year, the country's chamber of mines said on Monday.

The country's platinum sector currently faces a wave of labour strife and violence that killed 44 people this month and shut ore output at mines run by Lonmin, the world's third largest producer of the precious metal.

Elize Strydom, who heads employment relations at the chamber, said the demands were made several weeks ago by local branches of the National Union of Mineworkers and not the national office.

She said the demand was for a 2,000 rand ($240) a month increase for all underground operators except higher-paid rock drillers who have been the main source of agitation at Lonmin and other platinum producers.

South Africa's big gold miners Gold Fields, Harmony and AngloGold Ashanti negotiate collectively through the chamber for industry-wide wage agreements and the current 2-year deals will not expire until June, 2013.

“The chamber feels very strongly that we should respect agreements,” Strydom told Reuters. But she added that a task team was going to look into the matter.

The strife in the platinum belt stems from a bloody turf war, which has been spreading through the sector, between the dominant NUM and the smaller but militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

The demands signal discontent has also spread to the gold sector and underline growing rank-and-file anger with the NUM leadership as they came from the shafts and not the union's head office in Johannesburg.

AMCU has managed to recruit from among platinum producers by tapping a deepening vein of dissatisfaction with NUM's leaders who are seen as out of touch and too close to their political ally, the ruling African National Congress.

Wage hikes that have been racing ahead of inflation have added to a litany of costs eating into the margins of South African miners. But on the bottom of the wage scale workers with several dependents earn as little as 4,000 rand a month. - Reuters