Salary disparity behind most strikes at mines

Since the birth of the mining industry in SA in the 1800s, relations between mine bosses and workers – especially along racial lines – have been far from cosy.

Theirs is like a marriage of convenience, where both parties often tolerate each other based on what they bring to the table.

The conflict between both parties is largely centred on pay as workers feel they are treatedas modern day slaves while management reaps most of the rewards.

The mining industry’s failure to resolve the pay disparity has often resulted in tensions, leading to industrial action as workers fight for a better life.

A trip to Rustenburg’s platinum belt or the gold reef in Gauteng bears testament that many mineworkers live in deplorable conditions. These include shacks and small backyard rooms often with poor sanitation and security measures.

As resentment among mineworkers grows, the blame game begins, and workers become divided and disillusioned with their labour unions, and wish to move to another union.

 The transition is often chaotic, resulting in wildcat strikes.

Wild allegations start flying around that management is in cahoots with the majority union. This often results in illegal strikes, which threaten human life.

Fingers are pointed at the majority union, with accusations that it failed the workers. During this time, leaders from smaller unions are always ready to pounce on disgruntled members of the majority union, promising them heaven and earth.

It was such tensions over pay that 12 years ago resulted in the deadly Marikana massacre following a 42-day illegal strike on the platinum belt. Workers were fighting for a monthly salary of R12 500.

In 2022, workers at Sibanye Stillwater embarked on a three-month-long industrial action. The strike ended when workers were promised a R1 000 increase in the first year, R900 in the second year and R750 in the third year.

In September, a new phenomenon emerged when workers embarked on an underground strike, halting operations and risking the lives of those with chronic ailments. In December, workers at Bakubung as well as at Impala Bafokeng platinum mines also staged an underground sit-down.

These extreme forms of protest action reflect badly on the management style of mining bosses as well as politicians, who fail to produce regulations to address salary disparities.

What is baffling though is that strikes seem to have have been limited to labour unions that represent blue collar workers. This gives the impression that there are no pay issues among white collar workers – ranging from admin clerks to engineers.

Divisions along racial lines were further laid bare when predominantly Afrikaner trade union Solidarity last week reportedly welcomed the dismissal of workers implicated at the Gold One strike.

According to Sibanye Stillwater’s 2022 annual report, the average annual salary per entry level employee in SA is R273 672, while the company’s chief executive Neal Froneman received R189 747 000 in total cash remuneration.

Froneman’s salary is 693 times higher than the average entry level salary. The company’s 10 executive directors gobbled up R544-million in total remuneration packages.

Since the mining industry has failed to address these pay disparities, this gives government an opportunity to start exploring ways to address the scourge.

Failure to do so would further deepen SA’s hole of income inequalities.

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