NUM starts national safety strike

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) launched a one-day national strike on Tuesday to protest against deaths in the country’s mines, disrupting operations across the world’s top producer of platinum and gold.

Almost a quarter of a million NUM members are expected to down tools in the first industry-wide strike on safety, as the death toll in the mines hovers around 200 this year.

“The strike started at midnight and we plan a protest march for workers later,” said NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka.

“Thousands of other workers will be engaged in protest actions throughout South Africa,” he said.

Lesiba said about 40 000 of the mineworkers were expected to attend the march in downtown Johannesburg as part of protest actions countrywide, in their hope to try to put pressure on the mining industry to improve safety standards.

Mining companies and analysts have forecast huge output losses across the sector as mines grind to a halt in the world’s top source of gold, platinum, vanadium and key producer of coal, diamonds, iron ore, chromium, manganese, nickel and uranium.

Analysts saw metal prices jumping on supply jitters.

Platinum rose to its highest level in a week on supply concerns ahead of the strike. Cash platinum firmed to $1 461/1 466 an ounce, from $1 455/1 459 late in New York.
It earlier rose as high as $1 462,50, its highest since November 27.

AngloGold Ashanti, the country’s top gold producer and the world’s number-three gold producer, reported a “substantial absence” of workers at its various mines, and said even those workers that showed up would not be required to produce gold, but would instead be trained on safety issues.

“It ranges from full absence to partial absence from mine to mine, but in total it’s a substantial absence,” spokesperson Steve Lenahan said. “But even for those who turn up, it will be a day of safety training, we are not requiring them to work.”

Lenahan could not quantify a single day’s loss of output, but said together with various stoppages owing to recent death-related closures, production in the current quarter would be impacted. The company’s South African operations produced 618 000 ounces of gold in the quarter to end-September.

Output lost

About 900kg of gold and about 590kg in platinum output could be lost, an analyst said.

Anglo Platinum, the world’s biggest platinum producer, which accounts for 40% of world supplies said it was still early to tell the impact of the strike.

“We are assessing the situation and will have a better picture of any impact later this morning,” said Simon Tebele, a spokesperson at Angloplat, which is majority-owned by Anglo American. He couldn’t immediately say how many NUM workers the firm employs out of its total workforce.

Second-ranked Impala Platinum and gold producer Gold Fields said they were also trying to figure out how many of its workers had stayed away.

“Some of our mines are 100% affected, some less so but we will have a better picture as the day progresses,” Harmony Gold’s spokesperson Amelia Soares said.

Angloplat, Implats, Gold Fields and Harmony are some of the big mining players in the strike’s firing line, and all have had deaths at their mines recently.

Stung by the spate of deaths, the Department of Minerals and Energy Affairs (DME) has, unlike in the past, shut mines whenever deaths occur, and plans to prosecute mine managers for negligence. The mines can only re-open after meeting strict safety improvements.

Others are BHP Billiton, the biggest exporter of coal from South Africa, followed by Anglo Coal, a unit of Anglo American and Xstrata. Diversified coal and base metals producer Exxaro and Kumba, Africa’s top iron ore producer also expect output disruptions.

Officials say 199 workers died last year and 202 in 2005, in rockfalls, explosions or buried underground after earth tremors. - Reuters

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