Strike at South Africa's Lonmin averted in favour of wider talks

JOHANNESBURG, June 26 Wed Jun 26, 2013 10:29am EDT

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JOHANNESBURG, June 26 (Reuters) - South Africa's hardline miners union postponed talks with platinum producer Lonmin , averting an imminent strike, to allow more time for the government to reach a wider stability pact between labour and the mining industry.

South Africa's deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, is trying to get unions and companies across the mining industry to sign up to a stability pact as wage talks kick off to bring an end to unrest that has been rocking the sector.

Meanwhile, Lonmin, the world's third-largest platinum producer, and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) were to go to arbitration on Wednesday over their failure to reach a recognition agreement.

"The company agreed to an AMCU request to delay the talks in order to allow the process of engagement, led by the deputy president ... to take its course," Lonmin said in a statement.

AMCU, whose members have twice this year staged brief illegal strikes at Lonmin, had threatened to down tools there again if the recognition issue was not resolved.

Postponing such action to allow the industry-wide talks to take their course may indicate AMCU is trying to show it can be reasonable.

But the union, known for its militancy, could still strike at Lonmin in coming weeks if it fails to get its recognition agreement. And even if this is clinched, very tough wage talks will follow.

AMCU said in a letter to Lonmin, dated Tuesday but obtained by Reuters on Wednesday, "The strike action which has been decided upon has been delayed at the request of the deputy president ... We reserve the right to issue Lonmin with a notice of commencement of strike action."

AMCU claims over 70 percent of Lonmin's workforce after poaching members from the rival National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in a vicious turf war, which rumbles on.

The government is keen to ease tensions ahead of polls next year and wants to avoid a repeat of 2012's labour unrest that killed over 50 people, cost producers billions in lost output and led to credit downgrades for Africa's largest economy.

A spokesman for the deputy president said the industry stability pact was expected to be signed next week. There had been expectations it would be finalised this week.

Lonmin's operations were at the epicentre of last year's violence. Police shot dead 34 striking miners at its Marikana mine in August, the deadliest security incident since the end of apartheid.

Lonmin is still recovering from the effects of the wildcat action in 2012 that shut its mines for several weeks.

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