New spat emerges in South Africa's platinum strike

JOHANNESBURG, March 10 Mon Mar 10, 2014 11:44am EDT

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JOHANNESBURG, March 10 (Reuters) - A public spat emerged on Monday between South Africa's labour mediator and the Chamber of Mines over the former's handling of talks to end an almost seven-week strike in the platinum sector, further dashing hopes of any breakthrough.

There are no scheduled talks between the two sides. The squabbling between the group representing the producers and the state mediator makes it doubtful that any government-brokered negotiations will get off the ground again soon.

Tens of thousands of members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) downed tools on Jan. 23 in a strike over wages at the world's top platinum producers - Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin - hitting 40 percent of global output.

Last Wednesday the wage talks collapsed and the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), the government mediator, said the two sides remained too far apart and needed time "to reflect on their respective positions".

Elize Strydom, the chief negotiator for the country's Chamber of Mines who has been spearheading the talks on behalf of the platinum producers, told the Sunday Times newspaper the CCMA's commissioners had shown an "absolute lack of economic acumen" when it came to the talks.

"Senior commissioners of the CCMA need to understand economics, otherwise you cannot be a negotiator, let alone a facilitator or mediator," she told the newspaper.

The CCMA hit back on Monday, saying it was calling on the chamber to retract Strydom's comments or face unspecified consequences.

"We are concerned that it will impair the trust relations key to mediation," it said.

Officials from the Chamber of Mines could not immediately be reached for comment.

AMCU last week softened its stance for the first time, saying it now wanted staggered increases to bring the basic entry wage to 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month in three years' time, more than double current levels, instead of immediately.

The companies, however, say they are sticking to their latest offer of increases of up to 9 percent on the grounds they cannot afford any more given rising costs and depressed prices for the precious metal used for emissions-capping catalytic converters in automobiles.

Platinum's spot price leapt last Wednesday to six-month highs over $1,480 an ounce but the price reaction to the strike has generally been fairly muted as traders have bet that ample above-ground stocks will keep the market supplied.

As the stoppage becomes increasingly protracted, however, there may be a rethink on this front.

The economic costs of the strike are mounting and with general elections just two months away it is an unwanted distraction for President Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress.

Employees have lost earnings of more than 3.4 billion rand to the strike and it has cost the companies so far 7.7 billion rand in revenue, according to a tally updated almost every second on the Chamber of Mines' website:

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