| LUSIKISIKI, South Africa
LUSIKISIKI, South Africa Oct 17 South Africa's
system of migrant mine labour has come under renewed scrutiny,
with government and company officials blaming it for a host ills
bedeviling the industry and the country, including last year's
wave of violent wildcat strikes.
But there is no easy fix for such an entrenched feature of
the social fabric and the cure is proving as bad as the disease
as it means job losses on a grand scale with devastating
consequences for what are now called the "labour-sending areas."
This migrant labour force, which built a gold industry that
has produced a third of the bullion ever mined, was sourced from
"homelands" far from the shafts where most black South Africans
were forced to to eke out an existence under apartheid.
Many have also come from neighbouring countries such as
Lesotho and Swaziland.
It generated vast profits, not least because migrants were
paid bachelor wages even if they had families to feed, and
controlled the movement of Africans as the workers were confined
to hostels on mine property.
This system has outlasted white rule, which ended in 1994,
and is now in the cross hairs of the ruling African National
Congress and industry executives who bemoan its existence but
offer few viable alternatives.
"It's sad that the mining industry today still draws its
labour force from rural and illiterate communities," South
Africa's Mines Minister Susan Shabangu said at a mining
conference in Cape Town in February.
Earlier this week Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe
referred to the "the super-exploitation of unskilled workers"
through an "archaic migrant labour system" and companies now
routinely refer to it as a blight in their annual reports.
Many of South Africa's social, economic and industrial
problems have indeed been spawned by this apartheid relic.
For companies, the low skills levels of a workforce that is
semi-literate and from subsistence farming backgrounds has
Families have been uprooted and left fatherless as many
miners have two households, one near the mines and the other
back in their rural homesteads. Such arrangements have helped
fan the region's HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The typical miner has eight dependants, straining household
incomes and fueling wage demands which have been exceeding
inflation, escalating costs for mining companies and
underpinning wider price preassures in Africa's biggest economy.
OF HOSTELS AND HOUSING
Crowded hostels full of mostly young men are also blamed for
a macho culture of violence and alcohol abuse. Companies have
moved to providing housing allowances so miners can live off
site but the building of homes has been slow say critics.
But alternatives or reforms to the migrant labour system are
not really forthcoming.
One idea mooted by the government and industry has been for
miners who hail far from the operations to be allowed to work
six weeks on, two weeks off - much like off-shore oil workers -
and to be provided with a transport allowance.
But this is hardly a solution: workers cannot be coerced
into going home and may spend the allowance on other things.
Migrant labour issues were also partly at the root of last
year's turf war between the hardline Association of Mineworkers
and Construction Union (AMCU) and the once unrivalled National
Union of Mineworkers (NUM) that killed dozens of people.
AMCU, which poached tens of thousands of NUM members on the
platinum belt, draws many of its hard-core activists from the
former Transkei homeland, a rural backwater hundreds of kms
(miles) from the mines and now part of Eastern Cape province.
In this blighted region, the commodities curse has been
compounded: resource dependency is bad enough but is surely made
worse when the commodity in question lies far away.
The old Transkei still suffers from shoddy roads, where
livestock is a constant driving hazard, and 22 percent of
households have no toilets compared to a national average of
five percent, according to data provided to Reuters by the
poverty and inequality unit at Statistics South Africa.
The region has borne the brunt of massive lay-offs in the
mining industry the past two decades.
This helps explain why AMCU has been so strident in its
opposition to job cuts. Its strike action helped force world No.
1 platinum producer Anglo American Platinum to move
from a target of laying off 14,000 workers to giving voluntary
"voluntary separation" packages to a few thousand.
According to South Africa's Chamber of Mines, the number of
gold miners has plunged from around 490,000 in 1990 to 145,000
in 2011. Across the industry as a whole, the sector shed a third
of its workforce over that period, from 780,000 to 513,000.
The region will also be impacted by future job cuts and
while some former miners have made a new life for themselves as
commercial fruit farmers, many will be hard pressed to find new
In the dilapidated Eastern Cape Town of Lusikisiki, a
reminder of the mining industry can be seen in the massive
blue-gum trees lining its main road. They are Australian imports
long used to build support beams to prop up tunnels.
But the industry itself no longer supports Lusikisiki as it
once did. A Reuters journalist asking about the sector there
last week was surrounded by a group of young men, desperate for
work, who mistook him for a recruiter from a mining company.
"They no longer recruit here like they used to. Please give
us a job," one of them said.