News / Africa

    South Africa’s 'Strike Season' Underway

    Mine workers await their shift outside the Doornkop Gold Mine, about 30 kilometers west of Johannesburg, September 3, 2013.
    Mine workers await their shift outside the Doornkop Gold Mine, about 30 kilometers west of Johannesburg, September 3, 2013.
    Solenn Honorine
    South Africans call it the strike season. It happens every two years when wage negotiations take place in different economic sectors and cripple them with labor walkouts. This year, strike season is affecting the mining, construction and automobile sectors. The only thing out of the ordinary this time is the exceptionally high pay demands from competing unions, at a time when companies are struggling in a tough international environment.  
     
    The confederation of South African trade unions, COSATU, has long been a key player in national politics. It is now going through a difficult transition, however, with increased infighting. At the top, its longtime secretary-general and president are at loggerheads, while some of its member unions are losing ground in several sectors, from mines to transportation.
     
    Vic Van Vuuren, the director of the International Labor Organization in South Africa, explained.

    “There is a move at the shop floor level, where workers are disillusioned about what is happening within COSATU, and are starting to form their own breakaways. That in itself is leading to a shop floor debate where the unions are trying to get better deals with their members and leading to very high demands,” said Van Vuuren.

    Surging pay demands

    Wage demands are, indeed, especially high this year. In the gold mining sector, for example, the COSATU affiliate - the National Union of Mineworkers - is seeking a 60-percent pay raise, while a rival union - the AMCU - is demanding a 150-percent increase.
     
    Corporate management is sticking to its offer of a 6.5 percent wage increase and seems to be reactive rather than proactive in what is becoming an entrenched fight. Van Vuuren suggested that companies are missing an opportunity to bring some stability to the mining sector by failing to take a long range view.
     
    “They seem to be like rabbits in headlights, not knowing whether to move left or to move right, and waiting to see how the unions play out against each other. That is very dangerous," said Van Vuuren. "Management seems to have rested on their laurels, and say, 'OK, for social dialogue we need to focus on it only when we do our wage bargaining.' And it isn't the case because poverty levels and the wage gap is so high that it's going to be on the agenda continually."
     
    But the mining sector finds itself in an especially difficult position this year. Charmane Russell, spokesperson for the gold sector at the Chamber of Mines, said it is particularly true in her industry.
     
    “The costs in the industry have risen quite significantly. Labor costs certainly, and administrative costs, things like electricity, that has gone up several hundred percent, input costs like steel. At the same time, production has gone down. Currently, in the industry, about 60% of gold producers are not profitable,” said Russell.

    Intensified pressure

    South Africa once was the world’s largest gold producer. Falling gold prices, however, combined with costs of mining some of the earth’s deepest gold reserves and a lower grade ore has taken its toll. Add chronic strikes in the gold and platinum sectors, along with poor working conditions, and production has plummeted.   
     
    The situation is adding pressure to Africa’s largest economy, already struggling with sluggish growth.

    Since last year several mines already have announced retrenchments and restructuring plans.
     
    The situation compounds one of South Africa’s most serious and chronic issues: an unemployment rate of more than 25 percent. With so many out of work, each worker often supports his or her extended family.  And some have made the case that these very large union wage demands often are based on exceptionally high need rather than productivity increases.

    Innovative ideas sought

    The ILO's Van Vuuren said a complete overhaul of the current system is needed in order to get out of this vicious circle.
     
    “Government should sit with business leaders and come up with some social pact that is radical and futuristic. But I just don't see the same creative kind of solutions that we found in the 90's and the 2000's. We desperately need something that says to the South African masses: “We care, we're here to work with you, this is what we're prepared to put on the table," said Van Vuuren.
     
    Vanessa Phala, executive director of the employer's group Business Unity South Africa, said employers are ready to engage in wide-ranging discussion.
     
    “You can't have a situation where unions come in and they demand 120% increase. That's not possible, and that means they are negotiating on bad faith. Even employers should bargain in good faith. The business community in South Africa is willing and able to come up with whatever alternative to make sure we are not going to sink the economy. But we have to be realistic as well. We are operating in a global market and we need to remain globally competitive,” said Phala.
     
    Government, unions and business are preparing a first-of-a-kind summit to be held by the end of the year where each side can sit down and talk after tensions surrounding wage negotiations have subsided.

    You May Like

    Chechen Suspected in Istanbul Attack, but Questions Remain

    Turkish sources say North Caucasus militants involved in bombing at Ataturk airport, but name of at least one alleged attacker raises doubts

    With Johnson Out, Can a New ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Save Britain?

    Contest to replace David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister started in earnest Thursday with top candidates outlining strategy to deal with Brexit fallout

    US Finds Progress Slow Against Human Trafficking in Africa

    Africa continues to be a major source and destination for human trafficking of all kinds -- from forced labor to sexual slavery, says State Department report

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Eitheri
    X
    Jim Malone
    June 29, 2016 6:16 PM
    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora