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Strikes Hit South Africa

South Africa's gold miners and municipal workers are out on strike following a deadlock with their employers on wage talks. the strike in the gold mining industry is the most serious in nearly two decades.

The Chamber of Mines, an association of employers in the gold mining industry, says between 80- and 100,000 miners have put down their tools in support of pay demands. The unions, which are demanding increases of between seven and eight percent, depending on the job, declared a strike last week after they rejected an offer of 4.5 percent and five percent.

The employers then made a last minute revised offer that was around a percentage point higher, 5.25 percent and 6.5 percent. The unions said they would put the new offer to their members, but nevertheless elected to continue as planned with the strike.

The minimum wage at gold mines is $354 per month. South African gold mines are among the deepest in the world, and working conditions are hazardous, with miners facing severe heat and the constant threat of rock bursts.

A spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers, Moferefere Lekorotsoana, says that, in addition, current allowances are insufficient to allow miners, many of whom come from rural areas, to bring their families to live with them near the mines.

"The Chamber of Mines has not actually made any significant moves with regards to improvement of wages and also with issues related to the living out [living independently from the mine] allowance, which are very important issues to us, precisely because our members are still forced to live in single sex hostels, and they would like to live with their own families," he said.

South Africa remains the world's major gold producer, but declining production has reduced its share from 80 percent of the world's total output in 1970 to around 15 percent at present. Output last year was 342 tons. And, says the chamber's chief spokesman, Frans Barker, gold mines suffered an overall loss in the past year, something that did not occur even in the industry's worst crises in 1997.

"Well, if we look at what has happened for the last four quarters for which results are available, we have suffered for the first time in about 45 years since the rand currency has been introduced, it's the very first time that we have suffered a loss over these last four quarters," said Mr. Barker.

The strike by three quarters of the industry's workforce, will cost some $20 million per day, almost all of it in foreign currency earnings.

One other union, representing a further 4,000 white miners are expected to join the strike late Monday.

Meanwhile, around 40 percent of South Africa's 200,000 municipal workers are also out on strike, demanding an eight percent increase. The municipal employers association has offered six percent. Buses are not operating and trash is not being collected.

Several workers were injured when police clashed with strikers in the port city of Durban and in Benoni, a town east of Johannesburg. Officials said protesting workers were damaging property and refusing to follow police orders. Last week, in a three-day warning strike, municipal strikers in Johannesburg overturned trash bins, causing litter to spread througout the the downtown area.