The two unions representing striking South African gold miners today agreed to accept management’s latest offer and return to work, ending the industry’s worst strike in 18 years.
The National Union of Mineworkers, which represents more than 80,000 miners, and Solidarity, representing 10,000 miners, accepted an offer that includes a wage increase of from 6% to 7%, a higher living allowance for those not living in company housing, improved retirement benefits and funeral insurance.
A third union, the United Association of South Africa, had not joined the strike that started Sunday and cost the industry – the world’s largest – about £10 million a day in lost production.
Gwede Mantashe, the general secretary of the NUM, said the latest offer went a long way in addressing the conditions of workers. Unions had started out demanding pay raises of between 8% and 12%, depending on the worker’s position.
The Chamber of Mines, which represented employers in the negotiations, welcomed the acceptance of the offer and the union agreement to secure an immediate return to work.
At it height, more than 70% of South Africa’s 130,000 gold miners were taking party in the strike that started Sunday. Miners typically earn just over £200 per month.
The mining industry has been badly hurt by the strength of the rand, which makes its exports more expensive, and has cut jobs on a massive scale – adding to the list of ills catalogued by unions.
One of the main grievances was over accommodation. The unions say 70% of gold miners still live in single-sex hostels, a hated practice of the apartheid era that ripped families apart. The companies have committed to providing family accommodation, but say they need time.
The strike was part of a wave of industrial unrest involving airline staff, shop assistants and municipal workers angry that the economic benefits of apartheid’s demise have been slow to filter down.
Union leaders say there is rising ire at the growing gap between top management with their six-figure salaries and workers earning around £3,000 a year.
“In terms of pay differentials, South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world,” said Patrick Craven, spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
COSATU has also taken up the cause of the growing number of unemployed, a major reason for the persistent poverty plaguing South Africa’s black majority.
Unions argue the official jobless rate of about 27% underestimates the true extent of the problem because it does not take into account people who have given up looking for work.
A certain number of strikes is common at this time of year, when unions are locked in negotiations with employers. But this year’s action is the most widespread since the country’s first all-race elections in 1994 ushered in a period of relative labour harmony.
“The way that workers in the formal economy see it, the apples are not falling in their basket,” said Wyand Louw at the University of Cape Town’s Institute for Social Development.
“On the one hand, we have a glorious macro-economic Christmas tree lighting up, and on the other hand, we have the total alienation of the non-working community,” he said. “In between, we have the workers who also feel they are not reaping the benefits.”
Chris Hart, senior treasury economist with the ABSA banking group, echoed that analysis.
“The different treatment that top management are getting in companies relative to the work force has been the catalyst,” Hart said.
President Thabo Mbeki voiced support Wednesday for a strong trade union role to narrow the gap between rich and poor, black and white, but said this would take time because “we inherited such a disaster.”
His government has not sought to interfere in the strikes.
They have included a strike by South African Airways ground staff and cabin crew that grounded most flights for nearly a week last month. Pick ’n Pay, a major supermarket chain, was also hit by industrial action.
On Monday, municipal workers launched an indefinite and rowdy strike. About 500 of them threw rocks, lumps of concrete and bottles at police and dumped mounds of garbage in Cape Town during a march on Wednesday.
While the waive of industrial unrest is unprecedented in recent years, analysts say it does not compare to the violent strikes of the 1980s that were directed against apartheid.
Eddy Webster, a labour relations expert at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said strikes are a natural part of a modern industrialised society and are unlikely to deter foreign investment.