JOHANNESBURG – Return to work or you're fired.
That ultimatum from South African mining companies to strikers appears to be getting the desired result, convincing thousands of workers to settle for less than their original demands in order to keep their jobs.
Labor unrest in South Africa's mines, which until recently showed little sign of abating, now appears to be tapering off in the face of employers' tough stance against wildcat strikes.
South Africa's Chamber of Mines, representing mine owners, announced Thursday that it had agreed with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to raise gold miners' monthly salaries by up to 500 rand (about $57), in addition to a pay raise of up to 10 percent that miners got in July, weeks before wildcat strikes hit South Africa's platinum and gold mines. The raises fall far short of what most strikers are demanding: 16,000 rand (about $1,800) in monthly pay. Most miners currently earn about 4,000 rand ($500).
NUM, the majority union, is increasingly reviled by miners who charge it is too close to mine owners and is not assertively pressing for wage raises.
"We've always stuck to our guns that collective bargaining must be maintained," said Sven Lunsche, a spokesman for Gold Fields, whose threats to fire striking workers ended stoppages at three of its mines outside Johannesburg. More than 28,000 Gold Fields miners who were on strike "are now back at work or have been dismissed," Lunsche said Thursday, adding that 7,300 of the 8,100 mineworkers who were still striking early this week have now appealed after being fired.
Gold Fields became the second company to issue strikers with threats of dismissal that have been condemned by the influential Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) as too arrogant.
Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), the first to act by firing 12,000 miners at its Rustenburg operations earlier this month, has come under fire from COSATU, which is planning a massive street march Saturday in support of the fired miners.
AngloGold Ashanti, also badly hit by wildcat strike action, Wednesday fired 12,000 workers who did not report for work at its operations outside Johannesburg, according to Alan Fine, a spokesman for the company. The company reported Wednesday that "unprotected strikes" at its Vaal River operations had ended after all the workers there responded to a "recently improved wage offer made through the industry's collective bargaining framework."
Evans Ramokga, a strike leader at the Amplats strike and one of the 12,000 dismissed workers, said Thursday that getting their jobs back was now a priority. The fired workers had expected to be paid Wednesday, Ramokga said, but there was nothing in the bank.
"We understand the consequences," he said, adding that they are now prepared to settle for 12,500 rand (about $1,400) in monthly pay.
Mpumi Sithole, a spokeswoman for Amplats, said that only about 20 percent of the company's employees are back at work. "Anglo American Platinum confirms that while it retains its stated position that it will not reinstate the 12,000 dismissed Rustenburg employees, the company has agreed with its recognized unions that it is willing to discuss their status as part of this engagement," Sithole said in a statement.
Lunsche of Gold Fields said that without taking a firm stand employers would have been up against "collective anarchy" of the sort that would have set a bad precedent for labor relations in South Africa's crucial mining sector.
At the peak of the wildcat strikes more than 80,000 workers — representing 16 percent of the mining workforce — stopped work in labor unrest that analysts said undermined the country's reputation in the eyes of investors. The credit rating agencies Moody's and S&P's have downgraded South Africa's credit rating, citing the impact of the strikes on the country's economic outlook. South African President Jacob Zuma said recently that strike action in gold and platinum mines had cost the country about 4.5 billion rand (more than $500 million) in lost output by mid-September.
The strikes originated in the platinum belt around Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg, where in August workers at Lonmin's Marikana operations staged a wildcat strike orchestrated by a less-known union. The Marikana strike was noted for violence in which up to 46 people were killed, including 34 shot dead by police on Aug. 16. The Marikana violence, the worst since the end of apartheid in 1994, is now the subject of a judicial inquiry that representatives of the deceased miners hope will end in indictments of the police and mining executives.