‘No deal unless all unions agree’
South Africa’s major mining companies are putting on a show of unity – vowing not to agree to a wage deal unless all four unions in the sector agree simultaneously to the same terms at all their mines.
They made a “final” offer on Thursday to which the unions should respond by the end of this week.
Sibanye Gold, AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony and Evander gold mines are looking for a tidier settlement than the one in 2013 when the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) refused to sign and hung the threat of a strike over many mining companies’ heads for six months afterwards.
“For each company, all the unions must accept,” said Elize Strydom, lead negotiator for the gold sector at the Chamber of Mines.
Harmony CEO Graham Briggs added: “You cannot have employees earn differently at different mines ... you can’t have union-by-union deals.”
Neal Froneman, the CEO of Sibanye, said: “We will continue to negotiate until all four unions are on the same page.”
In the 2013 talks, Amcu was neutered because the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), with minority unions Solidarity and the United Association of SA, still had an overwhelming majority of workers as members.
It still represents 52% of workers across all the companies, but less than 50% at AngloGold and Sibanye.
This means the NUM and the mines cannot sign a deal binding all workers without Amcu.
A splitting-off of Sibanye, where the NUM is weakest, from the other companies is the only way Amcu can conceivably achieve anything to what it had attempted – and failed – to do in 2013.
The talks have demonstrated how the effects of the wildcat strikes on platinum and gold mines since the beginning of 2012 have disrupted wage bargaining traditions.
The CEOs of the gold mines are insisting it is time to end so-called positional bargaining. This is the ritualistic format of most South African wage talks where unions start with ridiculously high demands and employers start with ridiculously low offers and they progressively “make concessions” over rounds of talks before finally haggling over whether the deal will be for 1% or 2% on top of inflation, which is usually where it ends up.
This allows for “frank” discussions that aren’t possible when everyone is in the same room, said Strydom.
As with the platinum deal last year, the emphasis is on cash in hand at the cost of non-cash benefits.
The total wage bill of the gold industry’s permanent employees was R20.2 billion last year.
According to the mining companies, the deal on the table pushes that up by R5 billion over three years, which translates into an average 8% increase in the cost of labour for the gold sector every year.
Another knock-on effect of the platinum strike last year seems to be a gutsier approach to direct engagements with mine workers and without union mediation.
The mining companies have a “right and obligation to inform them [employees] ourselves”, said Briggs.
In an obvious reference to the large platinum mines that attempted to convince employees to break last year’s strike with SMSes, Froneman said: “It is our right to communicate directly. It is a right many have taken back.”