Un­easy calm at RBM mine

Although vi­o­lent protests have ended, the NUM is threat­en­ing ac­tion over the com­pany’s de­ci­sion to force per­ma­nent staff to take paid leave dur­ing the shut­down

CityPress - - Business - PADDY HARPER paddy.harper@city­press.co.za

An un­easy sense of calm has re­turned to Rio Tinto’s Richards Bay Min­er­als (RBM) mine in Kwambonambi on the KwaZu­luNatal north coast, which re­sumed op­er­a­tions this week af­ter vi­o­lent com­mu­nity protests forced a shut­down last week.

The re­turn to work may be short-lived, how­ever, as the Na­tional Union of Minework­ers (NUM), which has a 70% ma­jor­ity among the 4 000-strong work­force, is threat­en­ing ac­tion over the com­pany’s de­ci­sion to force per­ma­nent staff to take paid leave dur­ing the shut­down, and its a no work, no pay pol­icy for con­tract work­ers.

Half of RBM’s work­force is on con­tract and is re­cruited via labour bro­kers.

On Thurs­day morn­ing, be­fore go­ing back to work, the NUM’s mem­bers held a meet­ing to dis­cuss ac­tion over the wages is­sue and safety at the mine, which con­sists of a se­ries of open­cast dune pits from which high-qual­ity pig iron, ru­tile, ti­ta­nia slag and zir­con are ex­tracted for the Chi­nese, US and Euro­pean paint, pa­per and elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­tur­ing mar­kets.

They threat­ened ac­tion if the com­pany with­held pay for the shut­down, dur­ing which only es­sen­tial staff and small main­te­nance crews were on site.

Res­i­dents of the Sokhulu and Mbonambi com­mu­ni­ties, where RBM’s smelter and dune mine have been op­er­at­ing for 40 years, burnt four mine ve­hi­cles and blocked ac­cess roads with burn­ing tyres and logs in an at­tempt to force the com­pany to em­ploy more lo­cals.

RBM em­ploys 400 peo­ple from the 40 000-mem­ber Mbonambi com­mu­nity and a fur­ther 160 from Sokhulu, which has about 9 000 res­i­dents.

The pro­test­ers, who held a march out­lin­ing their griev­ances on April 25, also claim the com­pany has failed to meet its com­mit­ments for com­mu­nity devel­op­ment pro­grammes, and they want more money for skills train­ing and more op­por­tu­ni­ties for lo­cal busi­ness­peo­ple to ten­der for RBM con­tracts.

The com­pany shut down last Satur­day af­ter po­lice were called in to dis­perse pro­test­ers, send­ing staff on leave and bring­ing in main­te­nance crews.

“RBM took a uni­lat­eral de­ci­sion to go on shut­down,” said Em­manuel Zakwe, the NUM per­ma­nent shop ste­ward at RBM.

“Our mem­bers can­not be the ones to pay for it. If their full pay is not paid at the end of the month, we will take the com­pany head on.”

The threat from the NUM puts ad­di­tional pres­sure on a frag­ile agree­ment bro­kered be­tween RBM and the two com­mu­ni­ties by KwaZulu-Natal Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu, who met pro­test­ers, tra­di­tional lead­ers, lo­cal govern­ment, the po­lice and re­gional busi­ness to try to get the mine re­opened while a team drawn from the var­i­ous in­ter­est groups re­views RBM’s em­ploy­ment prac­tices and so­cial in­vest­ment tar­gets.

On Tues­day, Mabuyakhulu told res­i­dents of Mbonambi that the team would re­view the so­cial in­vest­ment, con­tract­ing and em­ploy­ment sit­u­a­tion and re­port back in a month.

Mabuyakhulu stressed the im­por­tance of keep­ing RBM – which con­trib­utes 50% of KwaZulu-Natal’s min­ing rev­enue through the 2 mil­lion tons of prod­ucts it ex­ports an­nu­ally – in op­er­a­tion for the sake of the re­gional econ­omy.

He was less well re­ceived on Wed­nes­day in Sokhulu, where the pits are lo­cated and where the ar­son at­tacks and as­saults on work­ers took place last week.

A group of young peo­ple walked out dur­ing his speech, spark­ing fears that they may not abide by the com­mit­ment their lead­ers gave to al­low safe ac­cess for work­ers.

Boy Mthembu (51), a stores clerk who has been at RBM for 11 years, said he had been con­cerned for his safety dur­ing the protests and couldn’t go to work. He said the com­pany needed to pay more at­ten­tion to the com­mu­nity’s needs.

“Peo­ple are an­gry. The young peo­ple need jobs, but they don’t get them. The com­pany needs to do more. My house was dam­aged by trucks from RBM. I com­plained last year, but no­body has come to see what hap­pened,” he said.

A res­i­dent in­volved in the Mbonambi protests, who asked not to be named, said they would “wait and see” what came from the new agree­ment.

The 28-year-old, who has ma­tric and cer­tifi­cates in weld­ing, has been try­ing to get a job with RBM for 10 years, but has not man­aged more than a three-month con­tract.

“We are tired. It’s like be­ing buried alive, sit­ting here and watch­ing peo­ple from out­side com­ing here in buses ev­ery day. For ev­ery 10 buses, only one has peo­ple from this area. If you don’t have a con­tact with the labour bro­ker or with RBM, you can for­get it,” he said.

On Thurs­day morn­ing, con­voys of earth-mov­ing ma­chines be­gan leaving the smelter area at Mbonambi and head­ing past piles of burnt logs that were still in the road af­ter the protests.

RBM spokesper­son Fundi Dlamini said the de­ci­sion to re­turn to work while the task team tried to re­solve com­mu­nity griev­ances had been made af­ter their lead­ers had guar­an­teed that there would be no more at­tacks.

Ad­dress­ing Tues­day’s meet­ing, Mabuyakhulu told com­mu­nity mem­bers that a lengthy con­flict would force RMB to close the mine, af­fect­ing the en­tire re­gion eco­nom­i­cally.

Mabuyakhulu said that while dis­cus­sions to find a longterm so­lu­tion con­tin­ued, the law would take its course. “If you are from the com­mu­nity and you are dirty, the law will deal with you. If you are from the com­pany and you are dirty, the law will deal with you.”

De­part­ment of min­eral re­sources spokesper­son Martin Mad­lala said the de­part­ment was part of the stake­holder fo­rums con­vened by Mabuyakhulu to try to re­solve the cri­sis.

“These engagements in­clude meet­ing with the dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties and the mines, with the aim of find­ing sus­tain­able so­lu­tions to the cur­rent chal­lenge,” he said.


COM­MU­NITY SPEAKS OUT RBM was last week forced to sus­pend its op­er­a­tions be­cause of protests by the Sokhulu and Mbonambi com­mu­ni­ties

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