The first week of 2013 started off with a possible gold mine closure due to unrest, which could cost some 6 000 jobs and plans by farm workers in the Western Cape to resume their strike.
As workers, the various organisations claiming to represent them, government, employer organisations and others all weigh in with competing demands and interests, the potential for an explosive situation again arises.
South Africa’s third largest gold producer, Harmony Gold has suspended production at its Kusasalethu (ironically meaning 'our future' in IsiZulu) mine, warning that it will close the mine if continued discussions with unions do not produce a solution to prevailing "lawlessness, violence and intimidation".
The mine has been plagued since last year by clashes between rival unions, an illegal strike costing some R325 million, a series of illegal underground sit-ins by workers, suspension of 580 workers, the deaths of two employees, and death threats to mine management.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), one of the central role players in the tragedy at Marikana last year where 46 miners died, has replaced the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as the majority union at Kusasalethu. Other mines owned by Harmony, where NUM is still the majority union, are not experiencing any unrest at present.
Members of the Chamber of Mines, which represents most mining companies, will be meeting on Thursday to share information, discuss current developments and strategise the way forward. The Chamber fears a repeat of last year’s contagious labour unrest if the problems at Harmony’s mine cannot be nipped in the bud.
The mining industry resumes full-scale operations this week after the Christmas break when many workers went home.
There are also fears that problems at Harmony could endanger the precariously balanced attempts by the Chamber, government and labour to stabilise the platinum sector – which bore the brunt of last year’s troubles – and create a single sectoral bargaining structure.
The developments at Harmony’s mine could also foreshadow the review by Anglo American of its platinum operations which may lead to shaft closures.
In June the gold and coal sectors’ two-year wage agreements come up for renegotiation. These negotiations could be complicated by fall-out from the bitter turf war between NUM and Amcu. Meanwhile any mine closures and layoffs of workers as could follow at Harmony, could trigger new waves of labour unrest and illegal strikes.
While labour representation on the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the governing African National Congress (ANC) was strengthened at its recent national conference, this is unlikely to contribute to any easing of the current labour tensions.
In the build-up to last year’s labour unrest, complaints by workers that labour leaders of the Cosatu affiliated NUM were more concerned with politics and their own benefits than the plight of workers opened the door to Amcu for accelerating its recruitment of members. Heightened conflict between the NUM and Amcu resulted and, directly contributed to the events at Marikana and the spread of labour unrest.
Western Cape agriculture
In the Western Cape farm workers are set to resume their strike this week in demand of an increase of their minimum wage from R69 to R150 per day. After destructive wildcat strikes late last year resulting in two deaths and widespread damage to property, a suspension of the strike was negotiated early in December to allow Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant to complete the time-consuming legal process to determine a new sectoral minimum wage and for direct talks between workers an individual employers.
However, Cosatu’s Western Cape secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, who is also an ANC metro councillor in Cape Town, and Nosey Pieterse who heads an organisation that goes under various names such as the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry (BAWSI) or the Black Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa (BAWUSA) have announced the resumption of the strike this week.
They claim this is because of the alleged 'white arrogance', 'naked racism', and intransigence of farmers and their failure to negotiate with workers. They have now also added the emotive issue of land ownership to the agenda.
However, only the government can set a new higher minimum wage for the sector. In addition agricultural organisations have repeatedly demonstrated that the affected farmers cannot afford a R150 a day minimum wage. If enforced it could lead to increased mechanisation and job losses.
While the likes of Ehrenreich and Pieterse claim to speak on behalf of farm workers, they say they cannot control the strikes as the workers do not belong to their unions, suggesting that things may get out of hand. Only about 4% to 5% of the estimated 200,000 farm workers in the province belong to unions.
Ehrenreich said the unions are also urging an international boycott of South African agricultural products because they are "produced under slave conditions”.
Since the outbreak of the illegal farm workers strikes however, the likes of Ehrenreich and among the migrant seasonal workers – who are not from the area – the unions appear to have found some support, but many of these workers still deny that Cosatu, Pieterse’s organisation or the other organisations speak on their behalf.
At the same time, it seems that the permanent workers on the fruit farms have largely rejected attempts to instigate them to participate in the violent labour actions and also resist being organised by some of the organisations now active in the area.
It is not only farmers, organised agriculture and opposition parties that claim that striking farm workers are resorting to violence and destruction and are intimidating non-striking workers. Acting government spokesperson Phumla Williams warned in a statement on Monday that "while employees have the right to engage their employers on matters relating to wage and working conditions, they are encouraged to refrain from violence and intimidation of other workers and the public in general”.