JOHANNESBURG Fewer than one in five workers turned up for work at Anglo American Platinum's (Amplats) South African platinum mines around the city of Rustenburg, it said on Friday, in protest against planned job cuts.
Amplats - part of global mining group Anglo American and the world's No. 1 producer of the precious metal - said last month it would cut 4,800 jobs, laying off 3,300 workers and paying off the rest.
It backed away from a target of 14,000 jobs after a fierce backlash from the government and unions, which included strikes orchestrated by members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
Unlike those stoppages, Friday's action is legal and in keeping with a change of tactics by AMCU, which was behind a wave of wildcat strikes that rocked South Africa's gold and platinum sectors last year and drove Amplats into the red.
A National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) gold miners' strike in September lasted only three days, raising hopes that stoppages in other sectors may not be protracted. But AMCU is unhappy with the 8-percent gold miners' pay hikes and may call further action.
AMCU, which emerged as the dominant union on the platinum belt after wresting tens of thousands of members from the once unrivalled NUM in a vicious turf war, is now generally playing by the rules.
"The company confirms that the strike is legal," Amplats said in a statement.
"All the company's process operations are operating normally. Production will be impacted by the strike action although sales will not be impacted at this point," it said.
Amplats chief executive Chris Griffith, mindful of the impact strikes had on the company's bottom line last year, said stoppages could put more jobs at risk.
Job cuts are a sensitive issue in South Africa, where the unemployment rate is more than 25 percent and mine labor violence rooted in the NUM/AMCU rivalry has killed dozens of people over the past 18 months.
The issue is also important for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) which faces an election in just over six months.
PLATINUM BELT TENSIONS
Tensions between the unions remain.
NUM is not taking part in the strike and an NUM official in Rustenburg told Reuters its members were being intimidated to stop them from going to work, an allegation that could not be independently confirmed.
"There are reports of intimidation and NUM members being stopped from going to work," said the official, who asked not to be named.
No one at AMCU was immediately available to comment.
Wage talks in the platinum sector are just starting and so further strike action against Amplats and other producers such as Lonmin and Impala Platinum is a very real possibility.
South Africa accounts for 75 percent of global platinum output and the precious metal's spot price on Friday was up 0.8 percent at $1,415.49 an ounce.
Coal producers and unions meet on Monday to try to hammer out wage agreements and avert possible strike action that could hit exports to Europe and Asia and supplies to power firm Eskom.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)