Mining strike: The bosses eat, but we are starving

It would take a mineworker 42 years to earn the average yearly bonus of a director at Amplats. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

It would take a mineworker 42 years to earn the average yearly bonus of a director at Amplats. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

In early May, even as employers sought to circumvent a troublesome union and directly convince workers to end a crippling strike in the platinum sector, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) announced the details of bonus and incentive schemes for its directors. In total the company announced R76.45-million worth of potential awards (depending on performance and the company’s share price several years hence) to 12 individuals.

In terms of one of the bonus schemes the directors would have to wait three years to extract cash from shares awarded to them. But workers then on strike would have to work for more than 40 years, uninterrupted by strikes, to earn the average of the director bonus – if they had achieved the R12 500 a month basic wage they demanded.

Add in the guaranteed salaries and various perks directors at the company claim, and it becomes impossible for an underground worker at the company to earn in a lifetime what the average director pockets in a year.
To equal the annual pay of the company’s chief executive, an underground worker would have to live a bit beyond 130, start work as soon as he legally can, and work until he drops dead.

And that is why the breaking of the platinum strike may represent a temporary reprieve rather than a resolution, both for the sector and beyond.

“You can say Amcu [the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union] is making us do it and we’re asking for too much money,” said a self-described “semi-striking” shop steward at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in the platinum belt this week.

“They don’t pay us enough to live and we can see how they live, the bosses. We know how much money they get and that makes us angry.”

Relative inequality has been cited as the root of their anger by workers from across gold, platinum and coal mines. Service delivery protesters from Gauteng to the Western Cape have pointed to neighbouring communities with access to running water or electricity as the reason they deserve the same. Workers employed by labour brokers have demanded the same treatment and protection as their directly employed colleagues. Seasonal agricultural workers have pointed to the profits of those for whom they pick and harvest as the reason why they should not have to put up with what they have termed “slave wages”.

But nothing illustrates inequality as sharply as the digits on a wage slip. In Marikana and the surrounding Rustenburg platinum belt the demand was simple from the start: R12 500. 

The fight for a decent wage is one of class, not race. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

In the days before and immediately after the Marikana massacre in August 2012 it was difficult to determine just what that R12 500 meant; workers at different shafts and at different levels of integration into a still emerging Amcu had different interpretations of the figure. Whether it included or excluded living-out allowances, though, or whether production bonuses should be counted towards the figure, almost everyone agreed that nothing stood between them and achieving it but the willingness of employers to pay it.

In 2012 Lonmin workers pointed to opulent executive offices and massive capital expenditure as proof that there was enough money to go around. In 2013, Amplats employees said they had seen the payslips of middle managers, and that they were no longer willing to risk their lives underground while paper-pushers got all the money. This week Implats (Impala Platinum) workers said they were being exploited, and simply weren’t having it anymore.

Each time workers were convinced not to join a strike or to go back to work, sometimes by mediators, sometimes by church groups. But every time, some say, they grew more convinced they were being tricked.

“We haven’t eaten for all these months,” said Marikana underground miner Thabelo Mudzanani. “These other people are not hungry like us, because they get all the money. Why should we work for them?”

Fat cats
Local Amcu organisers had used the argument of fat cats living it up on the back of their labour while urging them to remain unmoved by wage offers, workers in the area said – and the Amplats bonus announcement was taken as proof of what they had been saying all along.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the fact that many of the executives earning millions were white did not feature; the fight was one of class, not race, and the rhetorical question is a simple one: Why is their work worth so much more than ours?

It is a question that could be raised with increasing vigour over the next five years, given the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to the third-largest party in Parliament and the emergence of a more militant National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa).

“We have seen that these issues surface where there is inter-union rivalry,” says local International Labour Organisation (ILO) director Vic van Vuuren. “The wage gap has been on the table since 1995, but there are no real changes. Now you may find the EFF and Numsa and the like using the wage gap as an emotive way to gain ground from the political perspective.”

Van Vuuren and the ILO generally share the hard cynicism of platinum workers on pay inequality; for all the talk of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (both of which have expressed concern about financial instability caused by, in effect, workers and the unemployed revolting because their share of the pie is too small), Van Vuuren says he has seen little real commitment anywhere to addressing the issue – emerging consensus on its scope and scale notwithstanding. And he says the numbers show South Africa is behind even the disappointing curve.

“If you look at Brazil and India, the Gini co-efficient [a measure of income distribution] has at least moved – not much, but there is change,” says Van Vuuren. “In South Africa it hasn’t moved at all. That is an indictment on us.”

Amplats chief executive Chris Griffiths, himself potentially a recipient of up to R15-million in bonuses over the next three years, this week came out in defence of such payments and tried to frame the debate in terms of broader measures, such as the number of jobs created or retained by companies.

“Am I getting paid on a fair basis for what I’m having to deal with in this company?” Griffiths told Business Day this week. “Must I run this company and deal with all this nonsense for nothing? I’m at work. I’m not on strike. I’m not demanding to be paid what I’m not worth.”

Among Amplats workers the Mail & Guardian spoke to, those justifications fell spectacularly flat, and Griffiths was seen as simply trying to defend his own privilege.

Yet such broad measures are exactly what executives are being advised to focus on.

“Are companies dealing with the wage gap? Yes, but they are also struggling with it,” says Gerald Seegers, who heads up the human resources division of consultancy PWC, and is currently editing PwC’s annual report on executive remuneration.

“We think [despite] all this arguing about the executive level of pay [the level] is not out of hand. What we should be doing is look at, for example, at Angloplats last year they created this many jobs. How many was it this year? It is not only about the pay gap; it is also about economic issues like creating employment. You can put everyone on R12 500 but if you halve the jobs we have a bigger problem.”

Performance and pay
Like many of its analytical peers – including, apparently, shareholders in listed companies – PwC looks at the performance and pay of local executives compared with their foreign counterparts and finds that, generally, all is well in the top tier of South African business. The same is not true at the bottom of the pyramid, they argue, but comparing the pay of a chief executive and a worker will not fix that.

In the minds of the workers, however, the equation is simple, and all the more evident when economic conditions swing for the worse.

“During hard times the workers are told “you need to tighten your belts’,” says Van Vuuren. “When there is a difficult year or two wages are tempered, but at the same time at the executive level the argument is: “We’ve had a difficult year or two, we have to retain our best skills, we have to pay retainment bonuses’. In the good years the workers do benefit a bit, but the execs always benefit.”

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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