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

Russia Names US NGO 'Undesirable'

Prosecutors determine activities of National Endowment for Democracy to be 'undesirable,' paving the way for it to be outlawed on Russian territory More

Erdogan Vows 'Anti-Terror' Campaign in Syria, Iraq

Erdogan expressed confidence the 'necessary steps' will be taken by NATO leaders, who will meet Tuesday at Turkey's request More

North Korea: 'No Interest at All' in Nuke Deal

Senior US envoy Sydney Seiler visits Beijing Tuesday for talks on how to revive the stalled six-party nuclear talks with North Korea More

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

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Wini
X
July 28, 2015 12:21 AM
The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Obama Encourages Kenya to Fix Cultures of Corruption, Discrimination

President Barack Obama bid farewell to Kenya Sunday with a major speech at as stadium outside the capital Nairobi where he called on Kenyans to change the cultures of corruption and discrimination that can hold society back. VOA East Africa Correspondent Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video California Towns Welcome Special Olympics Athletes

Cities and towns in Southern California are greeting thousands of athletes who are arriving for Special Olympics, a competition for people with intellectual disabilities. The games will run from July 25th through August 2nd. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, where athletes from Namibia, Singapore and Tanzania got a rousing welcome from local residents.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.
Video

Video Hoverbike Flying Toward Reality

Another long-standing dream of many technological inventors is quickly approaching reality: U.S.- and British-based firms are cooperating in the development of an individual flying platform they call a hoverbike. They say it may revolutionize the concept of flying, including in the U.S. military. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video As Japan Expands Defense Role, Protests Follow

The Japanese government is moving forward with a controversial security bill that would authorize the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. Leaders say it is critical to defend against rising threats from China and North Korea. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Japan on the big changes ahead, and the opposition they are drawing.
Video

Video Replacing Poppies with Coffee in Myanmar

The remote mountains of Myanmar’s Shan state are home to the second-largest opium-producing region in the world. After a drop during the 2000s, production surged in the past eight years to feed an increasing demand for heroin in China. But farmers are now making less on the crop, and the U.N. is hoping many will make the switch to growing coffee. Daniel de Carteret reports for VOA from Taunggyi.

VOA Blogs