* Engine of job growth down shedding workers
* Low-skilled, migrant labour force built past profits
* Low skills now hurting productivity, fuelling labour
* Costs rising on all fronts
By Ed Stoddard
CAPE TOWN, Feb 6 The 14,000 jobs on the line in
an Anglo American plan to bring profits back to its
South African platinum arm are the just the first of many the
sector is about to bleed.
Once an engine of job creation, South Africa's mining
industry faces soaring costs, labour unrest and falling
production that is threatening other mines with closure.
The social consequences will be huge as much of the mine
labour force, drawn from rural areas far from the shafts, is
illiterate and will be hard pressed to find work elsewhere.
This labour force, which generated vast profits for the
industry, is now its undoing as low skills levels constrain
productivity, while income disparities fuel pay demands.
Tensions on the platinum belt remain high after wildcat
strikes last year unleashed violence that killed over 50 people.
With all mines employing a third fewer South Africans than
before the end of white rule two decades ago - while the
population has grown by over 40 percent since 1990 - decline in
the industry is not new, especially in the gold fields.
But at a time of mounting public disillusion with
post-apartheid rule by the African National Congress, mine
owners trying to cut costs find themselves caught between a
government keen to shore up its support and a labour force
struggling to survive on low pay but desperate not to lose jobs
For an illiterate peasant, even a low-wage, dangerous job in
the shafts has historically been a step up from subsistence
farming in the marginal rural areas where black South Africans
were forced to eke out an existence during white rule.
Today's mine labour force continues to reflect that.
"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 this week.
Now, even those grim opportunities are vanishing at a time
when unemployment is officially around 25 percent but widely
reckoned to be far higher. The mining sector is the country's
second largest employer after agriculture.
"We will all have to accept the fact that the traditional
way of mining in South Africa with its reliance on cheap,
low-skilled and plentiful labour is over. It is not
sustainable," Mamphela Ramphele, chairwoman of world No. 4 gold
bullion producer Gold Fields, told the conference on
Gold mining has already been partly mechanised because of
the depths of the shafts, which run up to 4 km (2-1/2 miles)
deep. Geological challenges constrain platinum's mechanisation.
South Africa sits on 80 percent of the world's known
reserves of the metal used for catalysts in cars. But the
sector's margins are being squeezed after a period of growth.
Platinum had been filling some of the employment gap as gold
production plunged and the bullion mines shed workers.
The World Gold Council says the country's share of global
gold production has fallen from 70 percent in 1980 to around 8
percent, knocking its ranking from first to sixth place.
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.
Other sectors such as coal have also lost jobs but platinum
mines added about 100,000 jobs over the same period to 195,000.
As Anglo's troubles show, that trend seems to be reversing.
Platinum's role in creating jobs to offset losses elsewhere
helps explain why the government, unions and the ANC reacted so
fiercely to the Anglo plan to mothball two mines run by its
Anglo American Platinum unit, Amplats, the world's top
producer of the precious metal, and to cut the 14,000 positions.
Anglo's outgoing chief executive Cynthia Carroll said this
week the company planned to press ahead with the restructuring
despite government objections; Shabangu has toned down her
criticism, saying she was "happy" with talks on the issue.
Analysts say more jobs will likely go and Anglo has said
Amplats, which had its first loss last year, needs to take
drastic measures now to preserve its 45,000 remaining jobs.
"We have lost control of our costs but we never seem to get
productivity increases. The sector will battle to hold on to the
jobs it has," said Peter Major, a mining consultant at Cadiz
Corporate Solutions in Cape Town.
South African mining executives complain that national power
provider Eskom, which has been imposing price increases far
above inflation to fund its plant expansion, is not helping.
Deep mines use a lot of electricity for cooling and ventilation.
"The future trajectory of mining is being largely impacted
by Eskom increases that we can't afford," Gold Fields' chief
executive Nick Holland told Reuters.
"Much to our horror now we find that we are going to have to
pay the same sort of increases again for another five years when
we thought this was it," he said.
David Davis, mining investment analyst at SBG Securities,
says in three years' time, the gold price will have to be at
least $1,750 an ounce for most bullion mines in the country to
remain profitable because of expected cost increases. The spot
gold price is currently around $1,675.00
Platinum is $1,728 an ounce and only breaks in South
African production are supporting the price, which has been
depressed by low demand, especially from Europe. It remains well
off a peak of $2,290 an ounce reached almost five years ago.
Wage increases have also run ahead of inflation.
But the average South African mine worker has around eight
dependents and basics like food prices have risen faster than
general inflation, sharply eroding workers' real incomes.
Miners are also coming off a low base, with workers at the
bottom end of the scale earning some 4,000 rand ($450) a month.
This helps explain the violence and the pay hikes of 50
percent or more that workers have been demanding, and the rise
of the militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction
Union (AMCU), which now has more platinum miners than the
dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
A vicious cycle could erupt as workers continue to demand
raises the industry mostly cannot afford and challenge
restructurings, scaring off more investors and leading to more
job losses that would further stoke social tensions.