LUSIKISIKI, South Africa, Oct 17 (Reuters) - South Africa’s system of migrant mine labour has come under renewed scrutiny, with government and company officials blaming it for a host ills bedeviling the industry and the country, including last year’s wave of violent wildcat strikes.
But there is no easy fix for such an entrenched feature of the social fabric and the cure is proving as bad as the disease as it means job losses on a grand scale with devastating consequences for what are now called the “labour-sending areas.”
This migrant labour force, which built a gold industry that has produced a third of the bullion ever mined, was sourced from “homelands” far from the shafts where most black South Africans were forced to to eke out an existence under apartheid.
Many have also come from neighbouring countries such as Lesotho and Swaziland.
It generated vast profits, not least because migrants were paid bachelor wages even if they had families to feed, and controlled the movement of Africans as the workers were confined to hostels on mine property.
This system has outlasted white rule, which ended in 1994, and is now in the cross hairs of the ruling African National Congress and industry executives who bemoan its existence but offer few viable alternatives.
“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 in February.
Earlier this week Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe referred to the “the super-exploitation of unskilled workers” through an “archaic migrant labour system” and companies now routinely refer to it as a blight in their annual reports.
Many of South Africa’s social, economic and industrial problems have indeed been spawned by this apartheid relic.
For companies, the low skills levels of a workforce that is semi-literate and from subsistence farming backgrounds has constrained productivity.
Families have been uprooted and left fatherless as many miners have two households, one near the mines and the other back in their rural homesteads. Such arrangements have helped fan the region’s HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The typical miner has eight dependants, straining household incomes and fueling wage demands which have been exceeding inflation, escalating costs for mining companies and underpinning wider price preassures in Africa’s biggest economy.
Crowded hostels full of mostly young men are also blamed for a macho culture of violence and alcohol abuse. Companies have moved to providing housing allowances so miners can live off site but the building of homes has been slow say critics.
But alternatives or reforms to the migrant labour system are not really forthcoming.
One idea mooted by the government and industry has been for miners who hail far from the operations to be allowed to work six weeks on, two weeks off - much like off-shore oil workers - and to be provided with a transport allowance.
But this is hardly a solution: workers cannot be coerced into going home and may spend the allowance on other things.
Migrant labour issues were also partly at the root of last year’s turf war between the hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the once unrivalled National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) that killed dozens of people.
AMCU, which poached tens of thousands of NUM members on the platinum belt, draws many of its hard-core activists from the former Transkei homeland, a rural backwater hundreds of kms (miles) from the mines and now part of Eastern Cape province.
In this blighted region, the commodities curse has been compounded: resource dependency is bad enough but is surely made worse when the commodity in question lies far away.
The old Transkei still suffers from shoddy roads, where livestock is a constant driving hazard, and 22 percent of households have no toilets compared to a national average of five percent, according to data provided to Reuters by the poverty and inequality unit at Statistics South Africa.
The region has borne the brunt of massive lay-offs in the mining industry the past two decades.
This helps explain why AMCU has been so strident in its opposition to job cuts. Its strike action helped force world No. 1 platinum producer Anglo American Platinum to move from a target of laying off 14,000 workers to giving voluntary “voluntary separation” packages to a few thousand.
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.
The region will also be impacted by future job cuts and while some former miners have made a new life for themselves as commercial fruit farmers, many will be hard pressed to find new employment options.
In the dilapidated Eastern Cape Town of Lusikisiki, a reminder of the mining industry can be seen in the massive blue-gum trees lining its main road. They are Australian imports long used to build support beams to prop up tunnels.
But the industry itself no longer supports Lusikisiki as it once did. A Reuters journalist asking about the sector there last week was surrounded by a group of young men, desperate for work, who mistook him for a recruiter from a mining company.
“They no longer recruit here like they used to. Please give us a job,” one of them said.