/ 7 August 2013

NUM warns of dangerous wage negotiations ahead

The NUM says it has to help fight to close the 'apartheid wage gap'.
The NUM says it has to help fight to close the 'apartheid wage gap'.

The National Union of Mineworkers said this season's round of wage negotiations between unions and the Chamber of Mines looked likely to feature a game of brinkmanship as they would try to force the employers' hands in acceding to its demands of restructuring the grading system. 

"Our main concern is that next year is the 20th anniversary of our democracy and we are not negotiating next year," said the National Union of Mineworkers's (NUM’s) spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka on Tuesday.

"As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, it is our wish that we should have closed the apartheid wage gap. It’s a gap we must close now."

In an interview with Business Day, NUM general secretary Frans Baleni said the grading system failed to take into account "the challenges of working underground" and that percentile wage increments drove up the gap between low-grade workers and higher grade workers.

Following the declaration of a dispute after the chamber’s offer of 5% across the board, parties resumed mediated talks at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). Unions tabled demands of between 60% and 150% for entry-level workers, with the Associaton of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu) sticking to a demand of R12 500, which, it said, was mandated by its workers.

Seshoka said this year was no different to other negotiating years except that an inexperienced party had joined the proceedings, making it harder to achieve a collective objective. "The intention of any union whose objective is to drive the demands of workers is not to break ranks," he said.

"United we stand and divided we fall. This thing of taking negotiations back to the shopfloor, we’ll have to work harder to achieve the objective of workers everywhere being remunerated equally for the same job."

Seshoka said Amcu’s argument that different mines had different circumstances didn’t wash because there was room at the negotiating table to deal with particular employers' concerns. "At this forum, the main objective is to make sure that the mineworkers get an improvement that is at the same level, and by so doing, avoid a Marikana II where workers at Lonmin were looking at what workers at Impala got and said, 'If they can get it, we can also get it'. Then at Amplats, workers were saying the same thing."

'So-called biggest union'
In a statement last week, Amcu said: "The so-called biggest union [the NUM] who called themselves champions of collective bargaining process abandoned the negotiations in the chamber’s gold sector in hardly two weeks of the negotiations process and ran to CCMA way before the chamber had tabled its final offer.

"Subsequently, for the first time in the history of wage negotiations in mining, the Chamber of Mines opted to declare a dispute when it realised that it could not explain its position … While we respect this right that the employer opted to exercise, we also note with regret that all the champions of stability, peaceful and constructive negotiations have left the negotiations table. Clearly, the chamber had expected Amcu to be the first one to walk out of the boardroom and cowardly run to the CCMA for help so that Amcu continues to look like a spoil sport in mining."

Independent labour adviser Albert de Beer said Amcu probably preferred decentralised bargaining because it was a system it was familiar with, but there was not necessarily one system that was better than the other. "Amcu was born in BHP Billiton, where they have always followed a decentralised background. It prefers that, probably because it is what it knows."

"With decentralised bargaining one can take into consideration specific company circumstances. Some of the mines are marginal and can only be able to reach certain settlements.  For example, [some] companies keep 24/7 operations while others keep five-day work weeks.

"If marginal, they can agree with some sort of incentive plan. The centralised model, on the other hand, actually offers powers to unions, because their power is stronger at the centre and they can get uniform agreements across the sector. The general secretary sits at the centre, so from a strategic point of view, he has far greater ability to negotiate in the centre. Also the centralised model can take a whole industry on a strike by using the companies that have agreed to a deal to force the others who haven’t agreed to budge."

The Chamber of Mines' offer provides a guaranteed monthly wage of around R9 000 at entry level. Amcu has asked for a 100% wage increase, the NUM has asked for 60%, while Solidarity is asking for 10%.

A CCMA insider said the commission was likely to conjoin the disputes as they had similarities.