Analysts say Amplats' decision to fire 12 000 miners on Friday shows a hardening stance against wildcat strikes in the mining industry.
This comes at a time when analysts have warned that the country faces a real threat of disinvestment which, combined with labour costs and a loss of productivity, could result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the sector over the medium term.
Workers at Amplats have been on an unprotected strike since September 12, when they demanded a R16 000 salary plus allowances, and were fired after failing to attend disciplinary hearings.
Because the strike is unprotected and illegal, mine owners are well within their rights to fire the workers involved.
"It's within their legal right because the strike is unprotected; it didn’t follow the procedure [for declaring a strike] set out in the Labour Relations Act," said Adcorp labour analyst Loane Sharp.
Sharp said that from the mine’s perspective, firing the workers would also make business sense.
"If you are going to retrench workers anyway, it's cheaper to dismiss them when you have the opportunity because you don't have to pay severance packages. If you retrench them you have to pay them a week of salary for every completed year of service," he said.
Sharp said even if Amplats rehired the miners it would be bad for workers as all the long-term benefits they’d accrued over the years would "reset".
"All of the benefits that are linked to length of service, like pension funds or share options, resets to zero," he said.
Sharp said he believes it's unlikely Amplats will rehire all 12 000 miners. "I would be surprised if Amplats hires back more than 9 000 people. They might only rehire only 7 000," he said.
Last week Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi backed striking workers, saying that the trade union federation, would seek better wages for mine workers in all sectors. He blamed mine bosses for the unrest, in particular Impala Platinum, which has given pay hikes in response to two wildcat strikes this year.
But Peter Major, mining specialist at Cadiz Corporate Solutions, said the trend towards giving in to demands made outside of formal structures is nothing new.
"Some people said it was Impala [Platinum] seven months ago or Lonmin a month ago, and said you guys went and signed something outside the auspices of a union, signed an agreement that went and abrogated a previous agreement. Which is true," he said.
But these decisions were merely indicative of a trend that began almost 10 years ago. Major said that mines now realise that giving in to such demands merely reinforce a new and bad principle of operating outside of established structures.
'Line in the sand'
By firing 12 000 workers, Amplats had drawn a line in the sand, something no one else has quite managed to do these past 10 years," he said.
"They [Amplats] have given the guys every legal means to come back to work, and honour the agreement. Now they're firing [workers] and doing a reappraisal of their work."
Major said that if mines like Amplats were going to act against illegal, violent strikes, now is the time.
"Anglo realised they should have drawn a line in the sand a long time ago and they realise now is the time to do it because government is more on their side, and the side of 'what's right', than ever before. This is because of 50 dead bodies [at Lonmin], huge and ongoing bad international press, government’s increasingly worse finances, and the huge, ongoing and increasing wildcat strike contagion now enveloping all of South Africa," he said.
"It's worked in Anglo's favour to try to confront this and resolve it, to turn this horrible trend around where people can arbitrarily abrogate an agreement that was signed in good faith, and then go on an intimidatory, destructive rampage" he said.
In a statement released on Monday, Cosatu condemned Amplats dismissal of the workers and called on the employers to reinstate all the workers and call the unions to discuss the workers' demands.
The trade union federation also called on workers involved in the unprotected strike to reconsider and suspend the strike, "to allow the negotiations to start and allow the federation to lead their demand for proper disputes and take a protected action, which will not dismiss anyone".
Cosatu to meet miners
"Cosatu support the demands of the workers but we are not supporting illegal actions, and the continuation of killing each other," it said.
Cosatu is also set to meet miners from the Bokoni Platinum Mine, which is considering dismissing almost 2 000 workers, on Monday.
Many of the affected miners have refused to accept their dismissal, saying they still regard themselves as employees of the mine and will continue with the strike until their demands are met.
The dismissal came just a day after ANC officials met with the Chamber of Mines to discuss developments in the mining sector. Last week members of the ANC also met with the South African Communist Party and senior leaders from Cosatu and the National Union of Mineworkers.
The parties agreed that unlawful strikes would have a negative impact on workers and the economy and that deviating from the collective bargaining system and from collective agreements was dangerous and could lead to further wildcat strikes.