This COUNTRY has witnessed bloodshed on the platinum belt. The strikes across the platinum and gold mining areas beg the question as to why workers would sacrifice their wages, their livelihoods and even their lives – if not for a better life, then for what

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The mining industry will have us believe that these are just unruly workers, hell-bent on sowing destruction; but nothing could be further from the truth.

If we look back on the platinum sector last year, we find that it was the mining companies’ refusal to speak to workers and their use of private security forces against their own employees that led to the huge disgruntlement across the industry. Now, as we enter 2013 we witness a backlash against these same workers: lockouts, threats of mass retrenchments and calls by the mining industry that ignore the underlying causes of the recent strikes.

The Bench Marks Foundation (BMF) notes that the impending assault on workers and communities through mass retrenchments goes beyond the platinum industry. Thus, 2013 is witnessing an onslaught by mining houses to pressurise workers into agreements that only deal with resuming production, but not with the underlying causes that gave rise to the strike wave in 2012.

Retaliatory action

Harmony Gold chief executive Graham Briggs seems to take delight in what can only be seen as retaliatory action against workers as quoted in Business Day (January 15). “The tables have turned. It is us, the company, which has demands on the table now, not the unions,” he said. “Our demands are [to] respect the law, that we are peaceful and respect the Mines Health and Safety Act.”

He goes on to say that murder, violence, intimidation and damage to property prompted the decision to suspend the mine’s operations. Harmony has found the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) leadership difficult “because of their insistence on dealing with past grievances rather than grappling with the more pressing issue of the workforce returning to work”.

These assertions by Harmony, that the tables have turned, show a picture of a company that is intent on retaliation. By not dealing with past grievances that led to industrial unrest in the first place, and then when workers are most vulnerable after the Christmas break with no money, to lock them out, leave them without accommodation and to refuse to deal with any of their concerns, Harmony’s actions could lead to further unrest. Last year workers took a stand for their human dignity and for a better life. This cannot be ignored.

We believe that the announcement by Anglo Platinum (Amplats) that it intends closing four shafts and retrenching 14 000 workers is calculated to provoke a strike in the industry, thereby effecting a rise in the platinum price, which has already lifted by 2 percent since the restructuring announcement, and possibly avoiding retrenchment costs through firing the workers.

We suspect that apart from attempting to escape the responsibility of paying retrenchment packages, corporations such as Amplats and Harmony are moving to smash the militant core of workers who led the so-called “unprotected strikes” last year. The precedent for this kind of action stems from the period in the lead up to 1994 when Impala Platinum (Implats) attempted to block the entry of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) into their Bophuthatswana operations.

The BMF has in its various reports noted that mass retrenchments and firing of workers was followed by a process of rehiring through the agencies of labour brokers and subcontractors so as to weaken the trade unions. Both the NUM and Amcu stand to lose from the current restructuring threats in the mining industry. Unless the intent by the three major producers is to try and smash Amcu in this manner and rehire through the NUM, whom they seem to consider an extension of their labour relations departments.

Evidence suggests that all the strikes started off peacefully by workers who after 1994 expected a better deal and for the first time have asked to be listened to: a right that the apartheid government never afforded them.

In response, the mining companies refused to listen to their workers, locked them out or used violence through the agency of security personnel to shoot workers. As in the case of Aquarius, where two workers were killed by mine security and 12 others wounded on August 1 last year, the response by mine security providers to Mail & Guardian questions was: “The private security forces at some of South Africa’s mines, increasingly armed with live ammunition as well as rubber bullets, are not quite sure whether they will be facing a greater level of labour unrest in coming months. But if they do, they will be relying less on the police than they would have before Marikana and be more ready to use deadly force themselves.”

Why resort to deadly force and violence? The mining corporations under discussion subscribe to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights and are supposedly committed not to use excessive force against workers, to ensure that their security personnel are trained in human rights and screening of security companies before employing their services.

This increased militarisation of mine security and the forcible use of it against employees who have legitimate grievances gives rise to the murder of workers under the cloak of so-called legitimacy. Here, as with other mining companies, the focus is purely on profits for shareholders, never mind the costs to life, the human dignity of workers or decent work and living conditions. Sustainability is not only about shareholder returns, it is about the responsibility of corporations to serve the common good. Taking shortcuts can only lead to huge social problems, and these need to be avoided at any cost.

While protesting the “lawlessness” of striking workers, these same companies seem not to respect the law, the environment or when it comes to mines closure, the requirements of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA). So, who is Briggs to try and argue from a self-righteous position, when in fact these companies seem to play hard and fast with legal compliance themselves?

Militant leadership

And what an ideal time to restructure operations, shut down plants and get rid of militant worker leadership under the guise of law and order and economic efficiency. The global economy is in retreat, and the prospects for expansion in the demand for platinum are limited: car sales are down globally and as we predicted in our Policy Gap 1 research, the motor vehicle industry is looking for alternatives to platinum-based catalytic converters (the largest manufacturing demand for platinum).

The three biggest platinum producers in the world are Amplats, Implats and Lonmin, which between them control 87 percent of global platinum and therefore should have managed the production in a manner that would have been to the greatest benefit for the country, workers and communities in South Africa.

In Policy Gap 6, the BMF warned that foreign multinational corporations that have delisted from the JSE and relisted abroad are essentially unpatriotic and will act to the dictates of shareholders and profit interests, rather than the interests of South Africa.

When profit margins are high, as reported for Anglo, which “recorded a 688 percent improvement in operating profit from R921 million in 2009 to R7.2 billion in 2010” (TNA Business, November 24, 2010), workers and communities see nothing from the improved profits. Yet, when these corporations declare adverse operating and cost conditions as they are doing now, it is workers and communities who have to bear the brunt of bad times and restructuring. Workers pay the price through retrenchments and cost cutting.

The BMF believes that the moment chosen for the restructuring announcement by Amplats and Harmony is aimed at breaking workers’ resistance to unhealthy and lowly-paid jobs. The workers, at the commencement of the new year, are under severe financial pressure due to costs associated with dependents, such as education fees, transport costs and debt repayments after the Christmas holiday period. This is likely to minimise the possibility of a sustained labour action, thus allowing the workers in the mining sector, who were the most militant last year, to be smashed. However, once workers have regrouped we could witness the spread of these strikes in mining and in other industries.

The BMF also believes that the ANC’s Mangaung conference has had an impact on the decision by Amplats and other corporations such as Harmony.

The shift away from the nationalisation debate and the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy president of the ANC, despite the events at Marikana, has emboldened the corporations operating in the mining industry and seems to have given them a sense of impunity. We are therefore not as surprised as Mining Minister Susan Shabangu about Amplats’ announcement; we believe it should have been anticipated.

We also warn the government about the true intentions of these companies. For example, many of the mines around Rustenburg are extremely old operations nearing their end of life.

The shafts indicated for closure are among the oldest shafts in the country. A number of Lonmin shafts including the Rowland Shaft at Wonderkop, where the massacre occurred in August, are approaching their end of life. We therefore believe that it is disingenuous for these mines to claim that shaft closure is due to increasing costs and labour unrest, when in fact these mines are mined out.

This should serve as a warning to the government that mining is not sustainable, it does not create permanent sustainable jobs and is not the appropriate peg on which to hang the country’s development plans.

Industry decline

In the Policy Gap 6 research we speak of impending mine closures and alert the government to the possibilities of the abandonment of mines, which leads to long-term costs for the environment, mining communities and the public, and the undermining of the “polluter pays” principle.

Policy Gap 6 also warns the government to be vigilant against corporations selling off worked-out shafts, and the responsibilities of mines selling to unsuspecting juniors, thereby evading their responsibilities as defined by the MPRDA and the National Environmental Management Act.

We truly hoped that the post-Marikana period would lead to more enlightened capital and a period of addressing inequalities and the huge labour discontent and that long-lasting agreements are reached. Instead, we see hard line attitudes by the mining industry and a refusal to take any responsibility for what has transpired.

Having said this, Amplats says it will create 14 000 jobs with a focus on housing, infrastructure and small business development. We suggest that if retrenchments proceed, a number of other alternatives also be considered.

Perhaps the suggestion by the unions for state interventions and the plants earmarked for maintenance and closure to be run by workers with government assistance; alternatively to explore other co-operative models like that of German co-determination; or like in Zimbabwe where the state takes a controlling interest of 51 percent ownership.

Whatever happens, the country can ill afford any job losses and sustainable solutions need to be found that not only consider shareholder returns, but workers, communities and the common good. This requires mature leadership and deep reflection on the context we live in. Decisions must go beyond short-term profit maximisation and require a commitment to social justice and long-term sustainability by the companies concerned.

Should this not happen, the industry will not be long lasting and will provoke strikes across the industry that will make Lonmin and Marikana pale in comparison.

Right Reverend Dr Jo Seoka is the chairman of the Bench Marks Foundation.