Fired mineworkers in a hole

Mothusi Setlhako has not been underground since November 2009. But, two years later, he still hovers around the Aquarius Kroondal mine’s parched, dusty surrounds in Rustenburg like a restless ghost.

Ever since his dismissal, with about 4 000 of his colleagues, for participation in what was alleged to be an unprotected strike at the Kroondal and Marikana mines in 2009, the short, wiry 24-year-old has turned reversing his fortunes into a full-time occupation.

Sometimes Setlhako can be found visiting his colleagues at the prefabricated compound that is Kroondal’s Circle Labour Hostel, where almost 200 former workers have been living since being dismissed by subcontractor Murray & Roberts Cementation following the botched strike action.

Besides fighting to get his job back, there are other reasons chaining Setlhako, originally from Mafikeng, to Rustenburg’s rock-strewn outskirts. Since November 2009, he has been a defendant in a public violence case, along with 32 other former Murray & Roberts Cementation employees who were retrieved from inside the mine’s central shaft where they had taken cover after violence erupted as they gathered to collect their records of service and unemployment insurance forms.

Strikes like this one are becoming routinely volatile affairs, in which incidents of violence are commonplace in the post-recession platinum sector. Often, union officials cannot negotiate favourable settlements for their members, leading to tension and acrimonious splits. Analysts argue that conditions for profit-making have worsened, forcing employers to dig in their heels. In the confused communication between the unions and the employer, it is the workers who lose out.

According to the pre-trial minutes prepared for next year’s labour court case between Murray & Roberts Cementation, its former employees and their former representatives, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a certificate of non-resolution regarding a wage dispute was issued by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbi­tration on August 19 2009. A strike notice was then issued to the employer confirming NUM’s intention to strike at the Kroondal and Marikana mines on August 24.

On August 21, the union and the employer attended a facilitation meeting at which both parties reached “an in-principle agreement” to settle the wage dispute, with a view to signing the wage agreement on August 24 after the union met its membership. But at about 10pm on August 23, a number of casual employees at the Kroondal and Marikana mines embarked on strike action, with more joining the following day, despite company communiqués advising workers that they were participating in an unprotected strike. The following day, the union and the employer met to sign the wage agreement while the strike continued and NUM told the employer that workers had rejected the agreed-upon wage increase. Workers continued their strike action and, in the unrest that ensued, 36 striking employees were arrested. About 27 of these workers have since been convicted of public violence and are serving five-year sentences.

After failing to heed ultimatums to end the strike, about 3 900 workers in both mines were dismissed on August 26. During the next four days, NUM and the employer continued to meet in attempts to find an “amicable solution” and, during this period, about 1 681 former employees were re-employed. It is still unclear how many were dismissed after failing to turn up.

‘Facts in dispute’
The facts in dispute include whether the strike was protected; whether the employees’ dismissal was substantively and procedurally fair; whether NUM was mandated to enter into the wage agreement with the employer and suspend the strike notice; and whether the employer was aware that NUM officials acted beyond their powers in entering into the wage agreement with the employer and thus acted in bad faith.

Workers like Setlhako are seeking reinstatement with full benefits.

In November 2009 Setlhako was among the workers who gathered at the central shaft to collect records of service and unemployment insurance when the situation turned violent, forcing about 38 into a shaft as they tried to avoid arrest. They were hauled out two days later and charged with public violence. About five workers evaded capture.

NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said the union had intervened, informing the workers that their strike was unprotected, but the workers damaged property instead.

“They were fired as a result of that,” he said. “We spoke to Murray & Roberts and managed to reinstate them but, when you are pleading with an employer, you must realise that the employer has the upper hand. Those who refused to listen to us [and report for work] were fired again. Workers overwhelmingly voted for the offer. The strike was no longer valid, so the minority started intimidating workers who were going to work.”

But Commercial Services and Allied Workers’ Union (Cosawu) organiser Mametlwe Sebei, who has been assisting the dismissed workers in the labour court matter, said NUM had suspended the strike without the approval of the workers.

“The employer can argue that it didn’t know that NUM officials didn’t have a mandate but the fact that workers continued to show their dissatisfaction shows that NUM had effectively lost it,” he said. To date, a list of more than 1 400 names has been published by Murray & Roberts as the company’s official list of dismissed workers.

Labour analysts argue that unions increasingly have failed to meet workers expectations with regard to wage negotiations, especially since the onset of the global economic crisis, a fact NUM concedes.

“Wage increases were negatively affected by the recession and, in some instances, we had to lower members’ expectations in order to save jobs,” said NUM secretary general Frans Baleni. “But members never got increases below inflation.”

Managing workers
University of the Witwatersrand sociology professor Lucien van der Walt said that an economic crisis was always more of an opportunity for the rich than the poor. “Business is not a charity so the way to get rich is by paying low wages,” Van der Walt said. “But it’s not only business that is digging in its heels, it is the government too.”

Jan Theron, the co-ordinator at the University of Cape Town Labour and Enterprise Policy Research Group, said labour brokering made it more difficult for unions.

“There has been a general lack of capacity from unions to manage workers,” he said. “There are scenarios that can turn workers against unions, but there must be a serious breakdown for that to happen.”

The most recently published statistics reveal that Cosatu’s membership has grown 3.8% since 2007, but that is mostly attributable to swelling numbers in public-sector unions, with many of the members in white-collar jobs.

The federation’s secretariat report shows that NUM, with about 272 000 members, has lost 2 500 participants since 2007. The union has been in long-term decline owing to sub-contracting in the mining industry.

The platinum sector is not part of the biannual central bargaining negotiations with the Chamber of Mines, which analysts argue increases the volatility of strikes.

Van der Walt said that splinter unions have grown because they bring with them an energy and a new way of doing things that are attractive to workers.

Death stalks the Circle Labour Hostel, where some of the dismissed workers continue to stay, living on hand-outs from working colleagues. With swollen lymph glands jutting from his frail, blanket-wrapped frame, Tebogo Letsela from Lesotho is gaunt from being unable to access medication. “I am on TB medication,” he says, painstakingly chewing on an apple. “This is probably the last thing I will eat today.”

Setlhako, then, is a ghost among many hovering around the Kroondal and Marikana mines. He and his colleagues are looking for legal representation for their labour court matter, which convenes in February next year.

In the meantime, news of colleagues succumbing to ill-health and starvation trickles in from all corners, as many have been unable to find more work. The copied death certificates folded into Setlhako’s bag get heavier every day. Misery, it seems, always loves company.

—Source: Pretrial minutes for the CCMA case.

Kwanele Sosibo is the Eugene Saldanha fellow in social justice and inequality reporting, supported by CAF Southern Africa

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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