* Gold producers and unions remain poles apart over wages
* Auto industry strike costing $60 mln a day
* Cost of living pressures stoke worker demands
By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG, Aug 21 South Africa's National
Union of Mineworkers said on Wednesday it would ballot its
members this week on whether to go on strike after gold miners'
wage talks stalled, raising the prospect of crippling stoppages
in an industry in terminal decline.
"We will go and consult with our members and put it to a
vote. We are going to strike, there is no question about it, I
just can't say when," NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka told Reuters.
The country's chamber of mines said it was still in talks
with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union
(AMCU) and the Solidarity union, but NUM matters the most as it
represents about 64 percent of the roughly 140,000 gold miners
in the country.
Gold mine stoppages would inflict more damage on Africa's
largest economy, which is already losing $60 million a day to a
strike by 30,000 workers in the car manufacturing sector that
accounts for 6 percent of gross domestic product.
The auto strike entered its third day on Wednesday and has
affected global carmakers operating in South Africa, including
Toyota, Ford and General Motors.
The two opposing sides in the gold sector remain poles apart
after the weeks of talks, with virtually no narrowing of the gap
between employers, whose latest offer was a 6 percent hike for
some categories, and unions.
NUM is seeking a basic wage for entry-level underground
workers of 8,000 rand ($790) a month, a 60 percent increase.
"We are miles apart and so the only sensible thing to do is
embark on a strike," NUM's Seshoka said.
NUM and the small UASA union both walked out of the talks
and applied for what is known in South Africa as a "certificate
of non-resolution" from the government mediator, which was
granted. This effectively allows them to strike.
NUM's more hardline rival the Association of Mineworkers and
Construction Union (AMCU), with about 17 percent of the gold
labour force, has submitted demands as high as 150 percent.
President Jacob Zuma and his ruling African National
Congress, criticised for their handling of violent mines unrest
last year in which more than 50 people were killed, are keen to
avert more labour strife ahead of elections next year.
South Africa's gold and platinum producers are still
recovering from a wave of wildcat strikes in 2012 rooted in a
turf war between NUM and AMCU. This cost billions of dollars in
lost output and triggered damaging sovereign credit downgrades.
But in contrast with last year, when illegal strikes spun
out of control into violence, the wage talks process this year
has followed standard legal procedures and has been generally
peaceful, although there have been sporadic murders at mines.
The gold companies, which have slightly raised their
starting offers, say the unions have failed to compromise.
"If you look at past years there has been a narrowing of the
gap by this stage in the negotiations and we have not seen that
yet," said Charmane Russell, a spokeswoman for the gold
producers which include AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields
, Harmony and Sibanye Gold.
Inflation data released on Wednesday will do little to cool
union demands as it showed headline inflation in South Africa
accelerated to 6.3 percent in July from 5.5 percent in June.
Worryingly, food inflation rose by 6.8 percent, a trend
which eats into the income of working-class households.
The chasm between the two sides underlines growing militancy
among a black labour force that has seen few improvements in
living conditions in the two decades since apartheid ended.
But companies have little room, with labour accounting for
over 50 percent of costs and gold's spot price about 30
percent lower than the record peak of over $1,920 an ounce it
reached almost two years ago. About half of the country's shafts
are losing money at these levels, the industry says.
This spells big trouble for a South African sector that
accounted for 79 percent of world gold production in 1970.
Thomson Reuters GFMS ranked South Africa sixth in global
output in 2012, when it produced 177.8 tonnes of gold, just 6
percent of the world total. It was the country's worst year for
bullion production since 1905.