November 7, 2012 5:02 pm

Strikes reveal frustrations with unions

Industrial unrest has put intense focus on mining companies and an industry that was built on the back of cheap, black migrant labour since Cecil Rhodes founded De Beers in the late 1880s – but unions have also endured the wrath of workers.

For three decades, the National Union of Mineworkers has been the dominant union in an industry that employs about 500,000 people, more than 300,000 of which work in labour-intensive gold and platinum sectors. But the wave of wildcat strikes in which workers have sought to represent themselves has highlighted mounting frustration with the NUM and the vulnerability of traditional labour relations.

The NUM has also faced competition from a newish upstart, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which has tapped into workers’ dissatisfaction to make rapid gains into the platinum sector. There are reports that it is also attempting to make headway into gold.

Lesiba Seshoka, NUM spokesman, says a key lesson of the unrest is the need to strengthen collective bargaining, “otherwise you are going to have a workforce breaking into groups of 20 or 30 and demanding to be engaged separately – it’s going to be a bigger problem.”

He blames the companies’ “attitude” for the unrest, accusing them of trying to break up the traditional unions and overpaying their executives.

“What sparked all this was an attitude problem on various levels . . . and that has to change. They [companies] need to stop looking far away when the problem is actually with themselves,” he said. “You talk transformation for many years and the companies are dragging their feet.”

The industry has been accused of not transforming fast enough in the post-apartheid era, particularly in addressing the social needs of workers and mining communities. Mining executives acknowledge that more could be done, but argue that hundreds of millions of rands have been spent on housing and development projects.

“People don’t want to recognise what’s been done . . .  We keep paying wages that are substantially more than inflation, and productivity . . . has declined,” says Nick Holland, chief executive of Goldfields. “How on earth do you sustain your business when that happens? More money for less productivity.”

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