Strike impasse: ‘Sweeping changes needed'
The Minister of Mineral Resources says government needs greater powers to end damaging strikes.
PRETORIA/JOHANNESBURG - Minister of Mineral Resources Ngoako Ramatlhodi says he will propose amendments to the Labour Relations Act that could give government the power to end stalled strikes.
The newly-appointed minister's comments were made in response to criticism of his failure to bring an end to the strike on the platinum belt.
The strike is the longest and costliest in South Africa's 130-year mining history and platinum producers Lonmin, Impala Platinum and Anglo American Platinum as well as their workers have lost billions in decreased production and unpaid wages.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) is demanding a basic salary of R12,500 per month plus other allowances.
One of the extras includes housing provisions which Ramatlhodi said government may be able to assist with.
However, his focus appears to be on adjusting South Africa's legislation to allow government to end strikes which are no longer in the public interest.
With the platinum strike's severe effects on the economy causing fears of a new recession, government is coming under increasing pressure to find a solution.
According to Minister Ramatlhodi, if the platinum companies agree to Amcu's demands, it could result in the wholesale closure of shafts and mass retrenchments, damaging the economy even further.
He said government's inability to bring an end to strikes as damaging as this one is a deficiency in South African law.
"We don't have deadlock-breaking mechanisms as government. If I had that instrument at my disposal, I'm sure I could have unleashed it," he told reporters in Pretoria today.
"If a strike was to run for six months such as this one, it should be possible for the state to issue an order for the parties to accept a certain settlement," he explained. "We can't have indefinite negotiations."
The minister added that his proposed amendments would give the Department of Labour sweeping new powers.
Ramatlhodi said he's aware the proposal may be criticised by trade unions but he believes they can be accommodated while the amendment is being formulated.
"There are examples in Australia, Canada, Belgium and other parts of the world where parties can go to court and declare a strike dysfunctional to the socio-economic interests of the country," says Gavin Hartford, an industrial sociologist and mining labour expert.
However, he warns that the move could lead South Africa down a slippery slope towards amending laws each time a strike causes trouble.
With the strike spilling into the third month of the second quarter, some investors fear South Africa may go into recession.
That was unlikely this year, central bank Governor Gill Marcus said on Tuesday, but she added that would be "cold comfort" if growth numbers came in weak.
The bank foresees 2.1 percent growth this year but the platinum strike and electricity constraints are considered the main risks to that outlook.
Marcus urged compromise by both sides in the platinum strike. But she singled out mining bosses for criticism in allowing labour relations to deteriorate so badly.
"A lot of focus is on the labour side of the issue. There's significant neglect on the employer side and the role they've played in getting to this mess," she told a Johannesburg accountancy conference.
"This is hugely about employer attitudes - behaviours, pay, executive pay, the kind of issues that really do affect the interactions."
The platinum producers said in a joint statement after talks broke down on Monday that they would "review further options available to them", but gave no further details.
The companies have lost almost R22 billion rand while employees have forfeited about R10 billion rand in wages, according to a live tally on an industry website.
*Additional reporting by Reuters