South Africa's Zuma slams striking union for risking mining jobs

JOHANNESBURG Mon May 5, 2014 12:46pm EDT

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma greets supporters of his ruling African National Congress (ANC) party during their final election rally in Soweto, May 4, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma greets supporters of his ruling African National Congress (ANC) party during their final election rally in Soweto, May 4, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Hutchings

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African President Jacob Zuma has accused the AMCU union of irresponsibility for dragging out a wage strike in the platinum sector for almost four months, telling reporters there was a risk of workers losing their jobs because of the dispute.

Zuma, who has made little previous direct comment about the strike, took aim at the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) on Monday, underscoring political concerns about the stoppage and its impact on Africa's most advanced economy, ahead of general elections on Wednesday.

"The union leaders have a responsibility ... to ensure workers are protected so they don't lose their jobs. You can't get into a strike that at the end the workers lose their jobs. That's your responsibility," Zuma told a news conference.

Mining companies joined the attack on AMCU, saying intimidation was being used to keep its members in line and they would continue with their strategy of putting their offer directly to employees to bypass the union's leadership.

But using typically combative language and evoking class warfare, AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa lashed out at the "platinum cabal" and its "exploitation of workers."

Mathunjwa told a news conference the 15-week strike, the longest and most costly ever in South Africa's mines, would continue and no new wage talks were scheduled.

The strike at the world's top producers of the precious metal - Anglo American Platinum, Lonmin and Impala Platinum - has hit 40 percent of global production.

The prospect of a painful restructuring in the platinum sector, including steep job cuts, has made the strike a headache for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and President Zuma as he vies for a second term in office.

"The very fact that you can introduce a kind of threshold that you are not prepared to move on, it says there's something wrong with AMCU," Zuma said.

LIVING WAGE

AMCU is high on the ANC radar screen after it emerged as the top union in the platinum belt in 2012, having poached tens of thousands of members from the once-unrivalled National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a key political ally of the ruling party.

The companies are offering increases of up to 10 percent that they say would raise the overall minimum pay package to 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month by July 2017, including cash allowances such as for housing.

AMCU had initially demanded an immediate increase to 12,500 rand in the basic wage, excluding allowances, but softened that stance in March to staggered increases that would amount to 12,500 rand within three or four years - still a third more than what the companies are offering in basic salaries.

Wage talks collapsed over a week ago and the producers are taking their offer directly to employees, via cell phone text messages, radio ads and public meetings in their rural home villages far from the shafts where many have returned.

Mathunjwa slammed the companies for such tactics and their claims that, in the face of rising costs and depressed platinum prices, they cannot afford to raise their latest offer.

"We are baffled about what is unreasonable (in) ... asking for a living wage under extremely dangerous and back-breaking work?," he said. AMCU says its wage demands could be met if overtime for management and senior workers was scaled back.

Mining companies said they had received feedback from many workers indicating they wanted to end the strike but were afraid to do so.

"The companies have received feedback from a large number of employees that while they would prefer to accept the offer and return to work, many are fearful of doing so due to the threats to their personal safety," the three said in a joint statement.

"Respective company security teams have documented dozens of incidents of threats of personal harm."

AMCU, which denies allegations of intimidation, has a bloody history. Its turf war with the NUM triggered a wave of violence and wildcat strikes in 2012, in which dozens on both sides were killed, including 34 AMCU mostly members shot dead by police in a single incident near Lonmin's Marikana mine.

Mathunjwa has tapped a vein of resentment among black miners who feel they are still not reaping a fair benefit from the country's mineral riches 20 years after the end of apartheid.

The companies say they were bleeding cash even before the strike. Underscoring the industry's woes is the muted reaction of the platinum price to the strike. Spot platinum is fetching around $1,436 an ounce, little changed from its levels on the eve of the stoppage.

($1 = 10.4625 South African Rand)

(Additional reporting by Xola Potelwa and Joe Brock; Editing by Ed Cropley and David Holmes)

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