JOHANNESBURG – Mine bosses have aggravated South Africa's labor unrest by dismissing striking mineworkers, the Congress of South African Trade Unions said Tuesday, voicing strong support for thousands of workers who have staged wildcat strikes at gold and platinum mines across the country.
The nation's trade federation said it would take "action" if the mineworkers were not reinstated by Oct. 27. COSATU said the mining companies should "withdraw those dismissals and engage further to find a way of resolving the strikes."
About 80,000 mineworkers, representing 16 percent of South Africa's mining workforce, are currently striking across South Africa. The strikes have been marred by violence, most notably an incident on Aug. 16 when police shot and killed 34 miners at a platinum mine in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg. Analysts say the Marikana strike may have motivated strike action by other mineworkers, because the Marikana miners eventually succeeded in winning a 22 percent pay raise.
Some companies have since fired thousands of striking mineworkers, insisting their action is illegal. Anglo American Platinum — the world's top producer of platinum — dismissed 12,000 workers whose strike brought its operations in Rustenburg to a standstill. Gold Fields, one of the top producers of gold in South Africa, on Tuesday gave striking mineworkers until Thursday to return to work or be dismissed. At least 23,540 of the company's 35,700 employees have been striking since September, the company announced on Tuesday.
"Particularly disturbing is that in the past few days we have seen a significant escalation in lawlessness, including damage to public and private property, widespread intimidation, including many cases of personal violence and several of attempted murder," said Nick Holland, the Gold Fields chief executive. "Over the weekend we saw strikers invade and ransack the police station in Westonaria and as recently as last night the driver of a company vehicle was stopped, pulled from his vehicle, seriously assaulted, and the vehicle set alight."
But the federation of unions, COSATU, which is in a power alliance with the ruling ANC party, said that dismissing workers is "not the way to go."
"COSATU wants to call the bosses to open the negotiations to find a way of improving the lives of the workers, as we are all aware that for the past 18 years the bosses have been benefiting from the economic growth that our country have enjoyed while the workers' share has decreased," the trade federation said in a statement. "We want to be on record that the current situation was created by the mine bosses themselves, so they should help us to resolve the crisis we are in and stop dismissing workers by SMS or in public."
COSATU's new position comes after its authority, as well as that of its affiliate the National Union of Mineworkers, was eroded by the spread of illegal strikes, with some miners choosing to be represented by smaller, upstart unions.
Solidarity Research Institute, a local think tank, said a struggle between rival unions, not poor wages, is the "root cause" of the unrest.
"In essence it is an undemocratic winner-takes-all system," the group's Piet le Roux said of South Africa's labor-relations law. "It gives the majority trade union the right to negotiate with the company on behalf of all workers and to enter into binding agreements. In the process, minority unions are being excluded and the position of the large unions is entrenched against smaller unions and newcomers in trade unionism."