Stranded workers have been seeking legal recourse after operations were suspended due to ongoing violence. Kwanele Sosibo reports.
The more than 500 mineworkers barred from their accommodation at Harmony Gold's Kusasalethu mine in Carletonville were this week still pursuing legal action to overturn what they consider an unprotected lockout by the company. The "lockout" has left many without accommodation since arriving for work on January 2 following their year-end break.
This week, Harmony Gold chief executive Graham Briggs said the mine has suspended operations "based on the past three months of lawlessness" and "intelligence" that this was set to continue.
The mine has also experienced clashes between members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). In a pattern similar to what unfolded last year in the platinum belt, Amcu has eroded the NUM's turf, amassing at least 62% of the mine's permanent workforce, which numbers roughly 5200.
Following the Marikana massacre on August 16, the gold and platinum sectors were beset by a series of co-ordinated unprotected strikes, with workers forgoing union representation and opting for independent strike committees to articulate their demands.
Harmony Gold, the country's third-largest gold producer, was particularly hard hit, with employees striking for most of October and demanding a monthly salary of R18500. Several underground sit-ins also took place following unproductive negotiations between management and workers, with the most recent resulting in the injury of seven workers who were shot by security officers on December 20.
On November 22, two workers were killed and another was injured when shooting erupted on the mine premises between members of the NUM and Amcu. The unresolved incident is seen by some Amcu members as a key factor in the suspension of operations at Kusasalethu.
On Thursday, Sivuyile Molo, who was also injured in the incident, appeared in the Carletonville Magistrate's Court on charges of murder. Although the exact circumstances of the shootings are still unclear, several workers independently interviewed by the Mail & Guardian alleged they were carried out by a squad of NUM gunmen from outside the union's offices.
Workers claim that the shooters and their accomplices have not returned to work since the incident took place and that Amcu has been denied access to CCTV footage for its own investigation.
Harmony Gold employee Sbulelo Nqeto said more than 20 people allegedly connected with the incident have been placed on leave. "I think that these are the people management is referring to when they say they will not retrench if we coexist with other unions. They want those in hiding to come back without consequences. But we have no problems with people in other unions; we haven't had problems with Uasa [the United Association of South Africa], for instance."
Briggs said the only information he has in this regard is that a suspect has been arrested by the police and that an internal investigation is underway.
NUM general secretary Frans Baleni said the two dead workers were NUM members who, he alleged, were killed by "an Amcu mob". He claimed that the NUM's Kusasalethu office has been attacked on more than one occasion by Amcu members demanding its closure.
This week at the mine, hundreds of workers were still sleeping out in the open on the lawns surrounding their hostels, and others opted for the concrete corridors of closed offices in the nearby financial precinct. Some were being put up by colleagues in the surrounding residential village and many were squatting in the nearby Wedela township.
Within a few days of the workers' arrival, members of the community began assisting them with food. But on Tuesday afternoon, the M&G witnessed a group of women being prevented from proceeding to the hostel with pots and metal tubs of food they had prepared for the miners.
Security personnel manning the entrance to the mine property informed scores of workers outside that no one would be allowed into the makeshift sleeping quarters, leaving many who had stepped out to buy food and other refreshments stranded by the roadside, away from their belongings. The workers trapped inside the mine had to spend at least 24 hours without food, with a few emerging by Wednesday midday with their belongings in tow.
Strategically lashing out
With one functioning toilet, no ablution facilities and access to the clinic cut off, the makeshift camp was starting to resemble a humanitarian disaster this week, with some workers who required chronic medication having to look for alternatives.
Although Briggs claimed there were only about 100 people outside the hostels, on Wednesday evening, as the workers queued to register, supposedly for access to the hostel following an agreement reached between the company's and the employees' legal teams, the M&G counted at least 500 people.
Amcu representative Lennox Tshisa said they were seeking a court interdict against the mine, as "the company can't lock workers out without a CCMA [Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] certificate. Once they have that, they can give the workers 48 hours' notice, but until then this constitutes an unprotected lockout."
Harmony Gold's Marian van der Walt said the situation could not be termed a lockout as they had given due notice by SMS and through radio stations and mining recruitment company Teba both before the mine closed and during the holidays. "A lockout would mean we have locked the gate and not paid out a cent," she said. "We have offered a R500 advance and free transportation. We will also pay people their full salaries for the next 60 days. Only seven people have taken up the offer."
She said the only legal document the mine has received is a request to allow people access to their belongings, which has been granted, provided they can prove they are employees.
Briggs said the mine is still profitable and has at least 25 years of life left in it, and should be reopened "as soon as the unions agree to get rid of lawlessness". Van der Walt said the section 189 [of the Labour Relations Act] process is an invitation to the parties to find viable solutions to return to normality within the next 60 days. Failure to accomplish this, she said, could lead to retrenchments and the closure of the mine.
Amcu's Jeff Mphahlele said that Harmony Gold management is strategically lashing out at workers after failing to manage its industrial relations professionally and cancelling several arranged meetings.
In the adjacent Blyvooruitzicht gold mine, workers said they had been put on extended leave until January 16. In November last year, after a three-week strike ended in October, the mine notified
recognised unions of its intention to retrench up to 960 workers, claiming that its operations were unsustainable in their current configuration. A similar climate pervades the Carletonville mining region, suggesting that 2013 will be another volatile year.