* Strike is biggest in post-apartheid era
* Fatigue may be setting in with cash-strapped workers
* Lonmin asks workers to take leave, sees protracted
* Companies have lost almost $1 bln in revenue so far
(Updates with no company meeting yet)
By Ed Stoddard and Xola Potelwa
JOHANNESBURG, March 26 South Africa's government
mediator met with the striking Association of Mineworkers and
Construction Union (AMCU) on Wednesday to restart talks aimed at
ending a crippling platinum strike now entering its tenth week.
The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration
said in a statement it would separately meet companies Anglo
American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin
this week, but industry sources said as of late
Wednesday no date for that meeting had been set.
Crucially, there are still no scheduled face-to-face talks
between the two sides and the Lonmin chief executive told staff
to take voluntary leave, as there appears to be no end in sight
to the strike that has cut 40 percent of global platinum output.
"Unfortunately, the strike looks set to continue despite our
best efforts to seek a solution with AMCU," Ben Magara said in
an internal staff memo dated March 25 and seen by Reuters.
"We have to make tough decisions to preserve and protect the
business by reducing costs and conserving cash," Magara said in
the memo. "As a first step, we will approach employees to
voluntarily take any leave owing to them."
Asking employees to take paid leave now is a signal Lonmin
hopes to make up for at least some of the lost production,
possibly by working through the Christmas break, when South
Africa's mining industry traditionally halts and most workers
take their vacation.
Talks collapsed three weeks ago with the two sides poles
apart on the issue of wages.
AMCU earlier in March softened its stance for the first
time, saying it wanted staggered increases to bring the basic
entry wage to 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month in three years' time,
instead of immediately.
That would be more than double current amounts. The
companies are offering increases of up to 9 percent, setting the
stage for a protracted and grinding showdown between capital and
labour on the platinum belt northwest of Johannesburg.
ALMOST $1 BLN AND COUNTING
The trio of producers has lost 10.2 billion rand ($950
million) and counting in revenue, while 4.5 billion rand in
employee earnings are gone, according to an industry website
that updates the losses. (here).
No other single mining strike in South Africa has approached
this scale since the end of apartheid in 1994. Economists say it
has already hobbled sluggish growth in Africa's top economy and
dealt a fresh blow to the country's reputation with investors.
For President Jacob Zuma and his ruling African National
Congress party, it is an unwelcome distraction with general
elections looming on May 7.
And "strike fatigue" appears to be setting in among miners,
many of whom have dependants and who this week will have missed
their second consecutive monthly pay cheque.
"If the companies move, we are prepared to take 8,000 rand a
month for now. That is the mandate we have given our leaders,"
an AMCU member with Implats told Reuters on Wednesday.
That would still be a raise of more than 30 percent and it
is doubtful the companies will come close to entertaining this
notion when about half of the country's shafts were not making
money before the strike, according to the industry.
AMCU leaders were not immediately available for comment.
But the union plans to march to Implats' office in
Johannesburg on Thursday, a sign that it is not backing down as
it usually uses such events as a show of force and to rally its
rank and file around the cause.
Other unions say AMCU members tired of the strike are trying
to leave the union.
"We have had guys lining up at our offices at Lonmin saying
they want to leave AMCU to join us because they are tired of the
strike," said Gideon du Plessis, general secretary of the
Solidarity Trade Union, which represents mostly skilled workers.
"But we have told them that won't end the stoppage and they
need to go to their leaders in AMCU and give them a different
mandate," he told Reuters.
($1 = 10.7657 South African rand)
(Editing by David Dolan, Keiron Henderson and Dale Hudson)