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South African platinum miners end strike, accepting pay raise

September 19, 2012 |  9:04 am
South-africa-mine

This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Platinum miners at Lonmin's Marikana site ended their illegal six-week strike after winning raises of up to 22% in a deal critics warned could ignite a wave of pay demands and wildcat strikes across South Africa's troubled mining industry.

One rival union official warned that the deal signed late Tuesday sent a signal that dumping previous wage agreements and staging illegal strikes paid off.

Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets Wednesday to disperse protesters at a neighboring platinum mine near Rustenburg owned by Anglo American Platinum, news agencies reported, where workers were calling for wage increases to match the Lonmin deal. A police spokesman said 19 protesters were arrested at the mine.

Miners at Goldfields' KDC West mine are also on an illegal strike.

Strikes are deemed illegal by South Africa's Labor Court if the workers have not submitted their grievance to a conciliation body and given 30 days' notice of a planned strike or if they stop work over an issue covered by a current agreement with employers in order to extract concessions in a future agreement.

In a sign that demands for wage increases are likely to spread, the main trade union body, COSATU, called on other mining companies to match Lonmin's salary increase.

"We hope that other mining companies will quickly make offers similar to the 22% increase reportedly agreed between Lonmin and the unions and workers’ representatives, and thus avoid any repetition of the events at Marikana," Patrick Craven, the group's spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday.

The strike cost the country $550 million, according to the government. It also saw President Jacob Zuma's leadership undermined by rivals such as Julius Malema, the expelled youth leader of the ruling African National Congress, who mounted biting attacks on him. Zuma's leadership comes up for renewal at a December conference and Malema's only hope of returning to the ANC is if Zuma is ousted.

Speculation is mounting in South African media that Malema faces arrest in coming days over alleged corruption.

Lonmin workers at Marikana held a mass meeting Wednesday and endorsed the deal. They are expected to return to work Thursday.

The agreement followed the killings by police of 34 strikers last month after workers armed mainly with clubs and machetes charged a phalanx of riot police. The killings shocked the nation. Dozens more people were injured and a government commission is probing the deaths.

In all, 45 people died in the violence, with 10 apparently killed by angry mobs of workers, including two police officers who were hacked to death and several shop stewards. A worker whose hacked body was found near protesting strikers last week may also have been killed by strikers.

Zuma and other government ministers have blamed the London-based mining company for the problems at the mine, saying it hadn't done enough to improve workers' lives. Lonmin had countered that it provided water or sanitation for more than 1,300 households in the past two years, built 1,149 houses and converted 60 hostels to residential units, with more than 50% of management comprising people disadvantaged by apartheid, or non-whites.

The deal signed late Tuesday saw increases ranging from 11% to 22% in the basic wage, with rock drill operators receiving a $250 raise to $1,385 a month. Workers had demanded $1,560, a figure the company said was unaffordable and would lead to layoffs.

Acting Lonmin chief executive Simon Scott said the deal was essential to prevent job losses at the mine.

"These have been difficult and tragic weeks for everyone involved with the company, the communities living around our operations and the South African nation as a whole," Scott said in a statement released late Tuesday after the deal was signed.

Riddick Mofokeng, a Lonmin miner, told the Associated Press that he was satisfied with the agreement. "It is not what we expected to get, but it is great. Most of the people, we are ready to go back to work," he said.

One of the main losers in the deal was the National Union of Mineworkers, closely allied with the ANC, which lost traction to a new rival union, Assn. of Mineworkers and Construction Union. The NUM's call last month on workers to end their illegal strike angered the strikers.

NUM general secretary Frans Baleni said in a radio interview Wednesday that the agreement rewarded anarchy.

"The normal bargaining processes have been compromised. It does suggest that unprotected [illegal] action, an element of anarchy, can be easily rewarded," Baleni said. "People can do certain wrong things with impunity and that means that it can roll over to other operations because they said, 'They did it, we can do it.' "

The deal also raises questions about Lonmin's profitability. Company official Abbey Kgotle was cited in reports as confirming that it would add $23 million a year to the wage bill. The company's half-year profit was $14 million, and the six-week strike cut its planned platinum sales by almost 9%.

Kgotle said the company saw the wage deal as being reached in honor of workers killed in the violence.

A business group, Business Unity South Africa, welcomed the end to the strike.

"It is unfortunate and regrettable that it took six weeks and [45] deaths, in addition, economic and productivity losses, to reach this point," the group's chief, Nomaxabiso Majokweni, told the South African Press Assn.

For the record, Sept. 19, 1 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled the town of Rustenburg as Rustenberg.

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--Robyn Dixon

Photo: One of the thousands of striking miners from the Lonmin platinum mine celebrates Wednesday after the workers and management came to an agreement on a wage increase six weeks after the strike started in Marikana, South Africa. Credit: Kim Ludbrook / Eureopean Pressphoto Agency

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