JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Miners ended a strike at South African bullion producer Gold Fields on Friday, while President Jacob Zuma pledged to speed up investment to ease grievances fuelling the worst labor unrest since apartheid.
But a month-long strike at Anglo American Platinum, the world’s top producer of the precious metal, showed no sign of ending. Workers were also still off the job at Harmony Gold’s Kusasalethu mine.
With the government calling on miners to return to work, companies have become emboldened to issue sacking ultimatums to thousands of illegal strikers, a hard-ball negotiating tactic that appears to be having some effect.
Gold Fields, the world’s No. 4 producer, said about 11,000 miners, threatened with dismissal unless they went back by Thursday, had returned to work after a month-long stoppage at its KDC West operations in Carletonville, 40 km (25 miles) west of Johannesburg.
It sacked 1,500 miners who had not turned up for work at KDC West and gave 8,500 workers on a wildcat strike at KDC East, another part of the mine, until early next week to report, or lose their jobs.
About 15,000 workers have been fired in the past two weeks, although analysts say most are likely to be re-hired because of the huge cost and time required to recruit replacements.
About 35,000 miners, or about 7 percent of the industry’s total workforce, are on strike and facing threats of dismissal, although roughly the same number have returned to work.
Mining firms are expected to use the strife to scale down less-profitable operations, leading ultimately to job losses and causing headaches for Zuma’s ruling ANC, which has made reducing chronic unemployment a priority.
Miners’ pay has risen steadily since the end of apartheid but poverty is entrenched in the rural areas from which most come. As wages have increased, so have the number of dependents, with a typical miner’s salary now supporting eight to 10 relatives.
“The failure to invest in basic services in black communities over the decades of colonial oppression and apartheid is a critical element in the persistence of inequality today,” Zuma told a conference on infrastructure development.
He said the government would speed up its $100 billion plans to build more houses for the poor, roads, schools and other infrastructure in an effort to alleviate the rural poverty that engulfs much of the nation.
Zuma’s ruling ANC and its old ally, the COSATU labor federation, have in the past kept a lid on strikes by encouraging deals for steady wage rises.
But many strikers are now balking at the system, saying labor leaders are more concerned about maintaining close ties with politicians and company bosses than protecting workers.
Nearly 50 people have died in unrest since August, including 34 striking miners shot dead by police on August 16 at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in the deadliest incident of its kind since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.
Thousands of Lonmin workers staged a one-day walkout on Thursday to protest against the arrests of colleagues suspected of murdering rival labor leaders. Lonmin said on Friday it was back to normal operations.
Writing by Jon Herskovitz; editing by Andrew Roche