Strikes continue as labour's Oliphant emerges

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. (David Harrison, M&G)

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. (David Harrison, M&G)

Wage negotiations needed to take place in good faith and as swiftly as possible to ensure the productivity of the South African economy was not adversely affected, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant said on Thursday.

"Wage negotiations should not necessarily result in a strikes," the minister said in a statement.

"Even when a strike is called, at the end of the day the parties have to find a way resolving the outstanding matters around the table."

South Africa has nationwide strikes in the gold mining, automobile, airline and construction sectors.

"To all negotiators, I know that you are busy with the negotiations. I wish that you will find one another sooner rather than later and come to the agreement as swiftly as possible," said Oliphant.

"We are still reeling from the world economic meltdown and we need to get the country working as smoothly as possible to be able to get the economy to create the jobs we so desperately need."

ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa also urged the unions and operators "to spare no moment, no time, no energy ... and find a solution to the strike" on Wednesday.

"Strikes are always resolved at the end of the day, the longer they take, the more it creates problems for all those involved," Ramaphosa told Agence France-Presse.

Unions to negotiate
South African unions and gold producers appeared ready to compromise on wage negotiations on Wednesday, as a mining strike took its toll on one of the country's key industries.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which represents around two thirds of the miners, hinted it might lower its demands, while two small gold producers reached a deal with their workers.

Evander Gold Mine and Village Main Reef agreed to increases of between 7.5 and 8% for around 5 000 affected workers, a development the gold producers' chief negotiator Elize Strydom described as encouraging.

The NUM, which has been demanding a 60% pay hike, indicated there was room for manoeuvre, but denied media reports it could go as low as 10%.
Employers are offering 6.5%.

"The NUM has not settled for a 10% [rise]. That is not true, our demand stands, but we are open to negotiations," spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said.

"We are still at a [wage] increase of R2 300 for surface miners, and R3 000 for underground miners," he said.

Surface workers currently earn R4 700 per month and underground workers earn R5 000.

Key industry
Seven gold mine producers employing about 107 000 workers have been affected by the strike, launched after central bargaining talks collapsed last week.

Gold is a key industry for South Africa, bringing in around 10% of export earnings and accounting for 3% of Africa's largest economy. The industry employs around 140 000 workers.

The gold sector stands to lose 761kgs in production each day, worth around $34-million as a result of work stoppages, gold industry spokesperson Charmane Russell said.

No violence was reported, but production at mining giants such as Harmony Gold was severely affected by the stoppage, while Anglo Gold Ashanti reported significant to severe impact, according to the Chamber of Mines.

The NUM's rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) which has slightly over 20% of the membership in the affected gold mines, will meet at the weekend to decide on demands to put forward.

"All that Amcu will demand is a living wage," its leader Joseph Mathunjwa said.

Engaging with unions
Harmony's chief executive Graham Briggs pledged to "continue to engage with all the unions to reach a wage settlement and to curtail the strike".

Stoppages in the mining sector have become a frequent occurrence during annual wage negotiations, but this year they come amid sluggish growth and rampant unemployment.

South Africa was for decades the world's largest gold producer, but its share of production has shrunk from 68% in 1970 to 6% of the world total last year.

Falling gold prices, a declining grade of ore and some of the world's deepest mines are all factors that have constrained gold firms' profits.

In part because of strikes, gold production last year fell by 12.4% to 167.2 tonnes – its lowest level in over a century – and cost the economy half a billion dollars.

But workers insist their dramatic pay demands are justified after a history of cheap black labour built the continent's most sophisticated economy.

Satawu strike
Meanwhile, a strike by South African Airways (SAA) technical staff affiliated to the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu) continued on Wednesday.

"We and the employers have not found each other on the matter relating to increases," Satawu general secretary Zenzo Mahlangu said.

The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration informed him that it was once again willing to facilitate talks between the two sides.

"Both parties, however, have to consent to the process. So we need to wait and hear what the employer says ... I am hopeful that the talks will be held tomorrow [Thursday]," said Mahlangu.

SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said they were waiting for Satawu to come back to them.

"It is up to the trade union to consider the options at its disposal. Those options do not rule out a possibility of coming back to the table with a revised position," said Tlali.

Satawu has rejected the 6.5% SAA offered while Solidarity and the Aviation Union of South Africa (Ausa) have accepted the deal.

Tlali said the absence of Satawu's workers from duty had had minimal effect on the airline. He said other than a few delays, operations were running smoothly. Workers who had still not reported for duty would face pay cuts.

"Absolutely ... we are working on a no-work no-pay basis," said Tlali. Wednesday marked the 10th day of the strike.

Numsa strike
Workers in the automobile sector have been on strike for three weeks. Employers offered a 10% wage increase, which the union has rejected.

The seven major vehicle manufacturing plants affected by the strike are: BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) leaders held a special national executive committee meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

The union would report back soon on the outcome of the meeting, said Numsa spokesperson Castro Ngobese.

"We will issue a statement later today or early tomorrow [Thursday] morning," he said.

Meanwhile, a march by Numsa members in KwaZulu-Natal, scheduled to take place on Thursday, has been put on hold.

Around 5 000 workers were to have marched in Durban, said Numsa KwaZulu-Natal chairperson Basil Cele.

"Workers are hereby advised to go to their plants to receive a report on the outcomes of the special national executive committee," he said.

"The president of Numsa, comrade Cedric Gina, will be present to address and communicate the outcomes of the [meeting]," he said. – Sapa, AFP

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