The strike in the gold mines of Sibanye Stillwater in South Africa continues in its third month as the fourth negotiation meeting between the company and the unions failed to find a resolution to the conflict over wages on Tuesday, May 17.
Around 30,000 workers in the company’s gold mines downed tools on March 9 demanding a pay hike of R1,000 for the lowest paid workers, which would raise their salary to R10,000.
Unions are also demanding a 6% wage hike for those categorized as “skilled workers” and a R100 hike for officers in this multinational precious metals company listed in the stock exchanges of Johannesburg and New York.
Sibanye Stillwater’s gold mining operations have come to a halt as workers have been picketing its gold mines everyday since the start of the strike, said Jeff Mphalele, general secretary of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). AMCU represents about half of the workers in Sibanye Stillwater’s gold mines. The other half are members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
While CEO Neal Froneman justified his last year’s R300 million remuneration package, the company has refused to give a hike more than R800 for the lowest paid. The unions refused to compromise and the strike has continued.
“You must understand that it is not just the difference of 200 rands we are fighting for, there is a structural problem with the salaries,” Mphalele told Peoples Dispatch. Those earning below R10,000 do not qualify for most of the housing loans from banks. On the other hand, they also do not qualify for the government’s housing welfare assistance which is meant only for the unemployed.
“So salaries must improve. It is important. We cannot sacrifice that 200 rand. It is not as little as one might think,” he said, adding, “I don’t know why denying the 200 rands is so important for the company. The CEO gave himself 300 million rand. 300 million for just one man! And he is refusing to give just 1,000 Rands to 30,000 people,(which adds up only to 30 million rands).”
Workers are losing pay for every day of the strike. News 24 reported that the “lowest paid have lost more than R20,000 in basic pay, and R37,000 when you include benefits and allowances. If the strike ended tomorrow with no improvement on the offer it will take them more than two years to recoup their losses. If they win, it will be 20 months before they break even.”
According to Mphalele, looking at strike as a loss to the workers regardless of the outcome is based on the assumption that those not on strike are not losing incomes. “But even workers who are not on strike are not meeting their needs for the month on their wages,” he argued, explaining that, strike or not, workers have been losing incomes as prices rise against constant wages.
In the platinum sector, where striking workers demanding R12,500 per month were massacred in Marikana 10 years ago, the monthly wage of the lowest earner is now R13,000, which is R4,000 above the lowest wage in the gold sector.
“Because in the platinum sector, where AMCU has been in majority, we did not make compromises with the companies in negotiations; we pushed on till our demands were met,” Mphalele added.
Wage negotiations are also set to begin in the Sibanye Stillwater’s platinum mines soon. “Our demands are more or less the same as in gold. Should the company fail to meet the demands here, they can expect strike action in platinum mines too,” he said.
Extending solidarity with AMCU and NUM, Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the country’s single largest union, said, “The mining house and its shareholders must come clean and explain to the whole country as to what is the basis for denying workers their justified demand of an R1,000 increase? Particularly, given that in the same sector last year, due to the current commodity boom, as unions in Harmony Gold, Numsa settled on a R1,000 increase for the lowest-paid workers for each year over three years. We signed a historic agreement, which resulted in the lowest-paid worker, (who is currently earning R10,478), that worker will be earning an average of R13,478 by the third year of the agreement.”
NUMSA itself is on strike at ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA), the country’s largest steel producer, which was interdicted by a court last week.
Outside of the mining sector, the bulk of South Africa’s unionized workforce are in the public service sector where most of the unions are affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade (COSATU), the labor ally of the ruling ANC.
COSATU has tabled a demand of 10% wage hike at the negotiations which began at the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) earlier this month. However, yielding under the pressure of finance capital, the South African government has committed to reduce public sector wages, putting itself at loggerheads with unions across sectors. Several more labor actions may be witnessed in the coming months.