(Recasts with company statement)
By Agnieszka Flak
JOHANNESBURG, May 18 (Reuters) - Operations at a chrome mine in South Africa owned by chemicals group Lanxess have been suspended since Thursday after some 470 workers started an illegal strike over bonus payments, the company said on Saturday.
The dispute at the mine in Rustenburg, 120 km (70 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, adds to growing labour tensions around South Africa’s platinum belt, which are set to intensify over looming job cuts and wage talks in the sector.
“The workforce downed tools, embarking on a strike which entered its second day on Friday. It was declared an illegal work stoppage by a court interdict (order) issued on Friday,” the company said in a statement.
“The interdict ordered employees to report for work with immediate effect. However, most of the workforce has not complied with the order.”
The company said the workers, who are members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), were entitled to a production-based bonus scheme, but were not eligible to payments under any other plans.
Mxhasi Sithethi, the union’s regional co-ordinator for Rustenburg, said the situation around the mine had been tense on Friday, although there were no reports of violence.
“We are trying to persuade workers to go back,” he said.
The union will be in talks with the workers and the company on Monday to find a solution to the dispute, he added.
Rustenburg, the centre of South Africa’s platinum belt and home to 80 percent of known global platinum reserves, has over the past year become the flashpoint of violent labour strife and a turf war between the NUM and the more militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
More than 50 people were killed in labour-related violence last year amid a wave of wildcat strikes that hit production in the platinum and gold sectors, and there are concerns that there could be more unrest after Anglo American Platinum announced plans to cut 6,000 mining jobs around Rustenburg.
That is less than half the 14,000 initially targeted by the world’s top producer of the precious metal as it seeks to restore profits, but unions have still vowed to fight the lay-offs. However, a protest strike called for Friday by at least two AMCU officials failed to materialise.
Upcoming wage talks in South Africa’s mining sector are also expected to be difficult given inflation, rising worker militancy, shrinking company margins and sharply falling commodity prices. The platinum price lost nearly 20 percent in the last two years.
AMCU’s leader on Friday threatened to bring Africa’s biggest economy to a standstill, ramping up the rhetoric in the 18-month labour crisis, while the rand fell to a four-year low against the dollar this week on concerns about further disruptions to an already struggling economy.
The growing tensions have put pressure on President Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC), which was criticised for its handling of last year’s turmoil and faces accusations that it is neglecting the poor 19 years after the end of apartheid. (Editing by David Holmes)