With attention now focused on the industry, companies and the government are under pressure to act, writes Amy Musgrave.
Johannesburg - There are various opinions on whether a five-month strike by the Association for Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) on the platinum belt was worth it for the more than 70 000 workers.
The union’s leadership believe the industrial action was a success, pointing to the staggered wage increases over the next three years, which will take basic wages to R12 500 a month, for which Amcu has struggled more than two years now.
Some industry analysts disagree. They argue that Amcu did not achieve its core mission of an immediate increase to a R12 500 basic wage for the lowest-paid miners. The workers lost a collective R10 billion in wages over that time, money which they will take years to recover, given their still meagre earnings even after implementation of this year’s increase. Conservative analysts also hold the miners responsible for economic damage to the country resulting from the drop in platinum revenues.
But the one thing everyone can surely agree on is that the strike – the longest South Africa has ever seen and, according to the union, the third-longest in the world – is a game-changer in many regards, for organised labour, the industry and the country as a whole.
Although it is true that miners have lost out financially over the past five months, the nature of a successful strike is that losses are temporary but the gains should be permanent. There can be no gainsaying the difference between a basic monthly wage of R4 500 and R12 500 (an increase exceeding 175 percent over three years).
The strike has also placed the spotlight on the industry and how much it still needs to do to significantly improve the living and working conditions of its employees.
A mining charter, adopted 10 years ago, holds companies to targets that should be achieved by the end of this year. Although the government is currently conducting audits of mining companies, there is scepticism among most stakeholders that the charter goals will be met.
The faith-based NGO Bench Marks Foundation, which has worked closely with mining communities for several years, painted a dire picture of the industry in its “Living in the Platinum Mines Fields” study released in 2012.
It showed that although platinum mining companies appeared to be socially responsible on the surface, the reality could not be further from the truth. They rely heavily on labour brokers to employ workers at near starvation wages, and the townships and shanty settlements that surround mining operations are overcrowded and underdeveloped.
Companies pay “living out” allowances to their workers because they cannot house them and in an attempt to skirt around the charter’s social housing obligations. But this practice only pushes miners into becoming interloping lodgers in already crowded communities such as the now infamous Marikana.
Until now, mining companies have been mostly allowed to operate without any sanction. But with attention now focused on the industry, companies and the government are going to be under more pressure to act, particularly if the government’s charter report card comes out looking bad.
Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi has already warned that the living and health conditions of miners will be high on his priority list.
The strike is also a game-changer because it has motivated the government to consider making changes to the labour laws to shorten the length of time of industrial action.
But it is not a cut-and-dried process. Unions will be loath to give up any of their hard-won rights under the labour laws.
Suggestions include limiting the time workers can down tools in exchange for companies being prevented from employing scab labour, and enforced arbitration after workers have been on strike for a certain amount of time.
The possible changes will be discussed at a National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) labour relations indaba later this year.
In a statement issued last month, Nedlac suggested that South Africa could learn from Norway, where parliament had the power to impose arbitration if a strike has lasted so long that it is considered ”dysfunctional”. Similar options also exist in Australia and Canada.
The strike is also going to make South Africa’s largest union federation, Cosatu, look internally at how it can remain relevant as more and more blue-collar workers turn to militant unions to represent them.
Amcu is a breakaway from the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers. Last year, NUM said it had lost over 40 000 members to Amcu, but its rival put the figure at a minimum of 50 000. One reason for the mass migration to Amcu was that NUM was accused of negotiating low salaries for its members. NUM could now end up losing more members to Amcu as a result of the pay increases.
The ultimate irony of the situation, of course, is that there really is no historical precedent for the platinum strike, bar one set by NUM itself and its historic 1987 strike, which went some way to cripple the apartheid economy and bring about the changes of 1994.
* Amy Musgrave is Group Labour Editor of Independent Newspapers.