Government intervention required in mining sector

The relationship between the mining houses, the shareholders, and labour is like South Africa’s iconic three-legged pot: all three parties are equally important for the pot to remain standing, and if it is to stay on the boil, all three need to understand their respective roles and responsibilities to one another. 

That was the view of Dr James Motlatsi, chair of the Shanduka Group, speaking at the recent Wyzetalk Workforce Insights Mining event recently — and it’s a great analogy. The legs on the pot are never straight up and down — if you look at them closely, they all seem to be pulling away from the pot as hard as they possibly can, while they’re working hard to keep it upright. 

“The question that begs an answer today is whether these legs not only understand their own responsibility, but one another’s? My answer is no, I don’t think they do, which is why we find ourselves in the position we are in. And after every long strike (be it legal or illegal), what follows is detrimental to all stakeholders — retrenchments and closures of shafts, never to be opened again, even if the commodity price goes up. This is an unbearable situation … and [it] is leading to the destruction of the entire industry, largely because of the lack of workforce engagement,” said Motlatsi.

What is it that will make it possible for the fractious, distrustful relationship between the three parties to be replaced, with a good story to tell? It’s an elusive answer, particularly when the likes of Exxaro decline to offer ideas for fear of jeopardising wage negotiations, and Anglo American will only offer press releases in response to our quest for the holy grail (or is that the holy three-legged pot?) of ideas for the future. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction (Amcu) and NUM did not respond to requests for comment, but Cosatu offered helpful insights. 

For mineworkers to trust their employers, five things need to be put in place, according to Matthew Parks of Cosatu. 

“Employers need to adopt a minimum wage approach, with integrity, and they need to pay workers a decent wage,” he said. “How can workers trust the employer when they are doing extremely dangerous work underground, for as little as R4 500 per month, while the mining chief executives are taking home millions in bonuses? How sustainable is it if mines are profitable only because the workers are paid poverty wages?” 

He added that workers should be comfortable in the knowledge that their health and safety in the workplace is not negotiable. Workers should have access to good, safe accommodation for themselves and their families, to avoid the social pitfalls of the migrant labour system. Employers should collaborate with workers to help them train up in other skills so that they have access to employment when mines close down. 

“Government needs to be more proactive, and take a more hands-on, strategic role in the future of the mining sector,” said Parks. “While there has been progress in legislation, there seems to be a lack of policy urgency in all regards. There are so many good government plans, but they take years to get to Parliament and Nedlac (the National Economic Development and Labour Council). It’s difficult to explain the sheer negligence of a bureaucrat behind a desk to people on the ground.” 

Parks adds that Cosatu appreciates plans on the part of the government and the president to intervene, but adds that it is deeply distressing that South Africa has shed 500 000 jobs each year since 2008. 

“We call for an urgent jobs summit, particularly in the mining and manufacturing sectors. There are no easy solutions for South Africa’s unemployment crisis, and we need to see a sense of urgency from government. While the various Public Works programmes have made inroads, we have also seen abuses in these, as they provide cheap labour for municipalities, rather than decent, well-paying jobs. We simply can’t have ‘business as usual’ when one in three South Africans is unemployed.” 

The Gordon Institute of Business Sciences’ Professor Albert Wöcke has a history in the union sector, is a founding member of the Public Service Bargaining Council, and he has represented the labour movement in the Public Finance and Monetary Policy Chamber of Nedlac. 

“The bottom line is that mining houses and labour have to co-exist, there’s no question about that,” he said. “Unions need to strike every now and then — that’s part of their relationship with employers — and peaceful labour is just not how our system works. But the ideal is short strikes that are entered into as a last resort, and they need to be constructive. Their foundation needs to be on a mature relationship, where people respect each other. At the moment, these relationships are disrupted by union rivalry, and social and material pressures.” 

Wöcke added that while unions are competing with one another, with workers switching between unions on the promise of R100 more in their wage packet, it’s not possible for the situation to stabilise and for solid relationships to be built. 

“Once we have stability, then the conversation needs to move to workplace issues, improving people’s lives and not just the workplace. This discussion will go to the heart of the alliance, as it will require additional role players to get involved for peace and stability. This will include the provision of housing and the upgrading of service delivery. Government has to get involved in this, because there are only so many social services that you can expect an employer to provide.” 

Noting that mining in South Africa is still in a positively Victorian state, Wöcke highlighted that technology is going to change the way that mines work, and that even more jobs are going to be shed as mechanisation and technology take over. The workforce will be smaller, but it will require more skilled, professional workers in a transition that is going to be messy, but one that will demand social agreements between employers, workers, unions, local government and community organisations.

“This is going to need two levels of agreements,” he said. “There will have to be normal workplace agreements, and parallel to those there needs to be a set of agreements that replace or extend the limited charters. These need to be of a social nature, focusing on community building, and that’s where government has to come to the table. In an ideal world, we’d have labour and employers working together, lobbying local government for better services. Can you imagine employers and unions marching together for service delivery?”

Parks quoted Winston Churchill, pointing out that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. “We’re hoping that the current crisis will force the employers, labour and government to find long-term solutions, so that mines will survive, workers will be employed at a decent wage, and there is a sustainable environment. Our view is that there’s no indication from business that they’re willing to change. The relationship has been poisoned over the last few years. Government needs to take the initiative and find a common ground for the way forward.”

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