JOHANNESBURG The head of South Africa's main mining union said on Tuesday its members were "not trigger-happy" about launching a threatened gold industry strike, hinting a compromise could still be found with producers before a Friday deadline.
"A strike is always the last resort, we are not trigger-happy about a strike," Frans Baleni, the General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), told Reuters on the sidelines of a mining conference in Johannesburg.
On Saturday, NUM gave bullion producers, including AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Sibanye Gold and Harmony Gold, a seven-day ultimatum to meet its demand for pay rises of up to 60 percent or face strike action.
"The seven days expire on Friday and we will take a final decision on when to issue a strike notice on Friday," Baleni said. Under South African law, unions must give employers notice of their intention to strike at least 48 hours beforehand.
South Africa's struggling economy is facing a wave of wage increase demands and strikes by workers in several sectors, posing a renewed labor headache for President Jacob Zuma's government after violent mines strikes last year dented growth and led to sovereign credit downgrades.
Africa's biggest economy is already losing $60 million a day to a week-old strike over wages in its auto industry. At current spot prices, a gold industry stoppage would cost it an additional $35 million in lost output on a daily basis.
Gold companies, squeezed between rising costs and falling prices, say they can ill afford the union pay demands.
Asked about NUM's 60 percent pay raise demand which would bring the basic wage of entry-level underground miners - about half of the gold industry's 95,000 lower-skilled workers - to 8,000 rand ($780) a month, Baleni replied: "We have said let the employers put something on the table."
"If it was something reasonable then I am sure our members would consider it," Baleni said, indicating that NUM would be open to some kind of counter-offer by the companies.
A source at the country's chamber of mines, which is negotiating on behalf of the gold producers, said: "Some compromises have been mooted by the NUM, but no revisions have been formally tabled." ($1 = 10.2575 South African rand)
(Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)