/ 17 May 2013

Fired Kumba miners now destitute

Miners fired after a strike at Kumba Iron Ore in the ­Northern Cape last year
Miners fired after a strike at Kumba Iron Ore in the ­Northern Cape last year

"Even as I am speaking to you, I don't have a cent in my pocket," says 26-year-old Thenyo Ohentswe. "Myself, I lost a 320 diesel BMW. My loans, I am in arrears. Now those loans have been taken to the lawyers. I am getting calls every day from them."

A breadwinner with six dependents, Ohentswe says he and his family are suffering.

But he is just one of 120 people who lost their jobs at Anglo American's Kumba Iron Ore last year following an unusual strike in which machinery was held hostage.

On October 3 2012, in the small and dusty Northern Cape town of Kathu, 300 Kumba workers seized and held equipment worth R3.3-billion at the company's Sishen mine, demanding a R15 000 salary hike. The workers also claimed they had been taxed too heavily on payouts they had received from an employee share scheme that awarded a maximum of R570 000 to long-term employees.

Now, however, dismissed workers, like Ohentswe, are feeling the pinch. Their homes in neighbouring communities stand half built, their cars have been repossessed, debt collectors are knocking on their doors and some have had no choice but to pull their children out of school. The workers held the equipment hostage for two weeks before the police and private security swept in and arrested 47 people.

Blanket amnesty
Although Kumba offered the striking workers a blanket amnesty with no criminal charges — just a final written warning — they ignored the call to return to work and refused to appear at a disciplinary hearing until their demands had been met. Those who returned to work were labelled "traitors" and 209 workers who failed to turn up were dismissed with four days to appeal. At the time, the protesters told the Mail & Guardian they would not appeal.

Now, however, the reality of the situation has sunk in and those dismissed are desperately exploring every avenue to get their jobs back. "Our property is gone, our children are no longer at school, we are starving," says Ohentswe.

The strike was never intended to escalate the way it did, he says. It began as an attempt to force the general manager to respond to a memorandum. The official demand was for an extra R15 000 in wages for each employee across the board.

Kumba claimed those who stayed away from work in October 2012 ranged from mid-level operators to artisans, some of whom earned a basic salary of R31 000.

But Ohentswe, who was a machine operator, says he took home about R13 000 a month. Payslips belonging to two truck drivers who took part in the strike seen by the Mail & Guardian show that they took home R10 000 or R11 000 a month.

Tax deductions
The workers were also disgruntled about the tax deducted from the mining company's employee empowerment scheme payout.

In December 2012, Sishen paid out R2.7-billion to workers as part of its Envision employee empowerment scheme. All permanent workers who had been employed at Sishen for five years or more received the maximum payout of R570 000. Those who had not been employed by the mine for the full five-year period received smaller amounts.

All workers still receive an equal dividend every six months — these two dividends amounted to a total of R33 000 in 2012. The dismissed workers have lost out on another major Envision payout that is due in 2016.

Last year, striking workers said they could not wait for the payout. "We can't wait until 2016 when we are suffering now," one said.

Those who qualified for the full payout received R345 000 after tax. Kumba spokesperson Gert Schoeman said all was above board. "After full consultation with all relevant parties, it was confirmed that the correct tax deductions were applied as per South African Revenue Service rules. Sars also wrote a letter to the employees confirming this."

Bongani Kies worked for 10 years as an operator at Kumba and was part of the strike, although he was not there when the machinery was seized. He says he appealed his dismissal, but was not reinstated. "We don't know what criteria the company used. Even guys who took the machines, a lot of them were reinstated."

Kies had some Envision funds tucked away, although they have fast run dry. "There is no income. My commitments, I can't meet them. I'm in arrears, they keep phoning. I have loans, small stuff, that I should pay that I can't pay."

Many employees with children at school received a subsidy from Kumba, but they now have to foot the full bill and cannot do so, Kies says. "They have had to remove their child from school in the middle of the year."

Gert Schoeman said a total of 209 employees were dismissed during the industrial action. Of these, 124 reported for appeal hearings and 89 were reinstated. Ohentswe claims the appeal process was not fully attended because it was not communicated to employees by the union in time, although the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) refutes this. The NUM did not support the unprotected strike and the workers made it clear that they were not interested in handing their concerns over to the union as they were never effectively dealt with. However, Ohentswe and Kies were part of a group of 14 dismissed workers who travelled to Gauteng recently to protest in front of the NUM's offices. "They told us they were in the wrong, they pleaded with us," said NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka. He said that because many of the dismissed workers are union members, the union will re-engage Kumba about reinstatement. But Schoeman said the dismissals will not be reviewed. "We cannot re-employ them as the trust relationship has irretrievably broken down. The majority of the positions have been filled and the recruitment process to fill all remaining vacancies continues as dictated by operational requirements."