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Unions sceptical about mining ‘modernisation’

As long as it will lead to fewer jobs, they will be against it.
Joseph Mathunjwa

Mining companies’ quest for improved productivity is sure to be meet with resistance from labour, especially because the simplest way to achieve that goal is through increased mechanisation.

The term that the mining industry prefers to use is ‘modernisation’, where the evolution of the industry will not just be about replacing people with machines, but upskilling the workforce to be able to operate more machinery.

But, at the end of the day, there will be fewer people working in these ‘modernised’ mines than there are today, and unions will, therefore, remain suspicious of mining companies when it comes to the subject.

“Any modernisation that comes with unemployment is problematic for me,” said veteran unionist Dr James Motlatsi, who was speaking at The Joburg Indaba on Thursday. “Because that would mean that they are running away from the problems of dealing with labour.”

Motlatsi shared a stage with Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) president Joseph Mathunjwa, where they explained the concerns of the labour movement with ‘white capitalist’ mine companies, that seemed to not be willing enough to address legacy issues of apartheid.

On whether the trust between labour and business would ever be restored, Mathunjwa said it would be impossible as long as wage disparity between the highest- and lowest-paid workers in mining companies remained as big as it is now.

“How can there be trust when the mineworkers who have to go deep into the belly of the mine, (working in temperatures of 40°C for several hours) get a wage of R5 600, while the CEO of that company gets R40 million?” questioned Mathunjwa.

Motlatsi said that, as long as modernisation means one person with a machine, doing a job that was previously done by ten people, unions will resist mechanisation. Rather, in order to improve productivity, he urged mining companies to explain the finances of the business and how profits are to be shared.

Said Motlatsi: “They are being told: ‘If you can drill and blast so many times, you will get a bonus,’ but they would be getting a bonus from a business that they do not understand. Rather say to them that ‘if you blasted so many times, [this] is what you will get because the profit will be x amount, and this is how the profit will be allocated’. These people need to participate in so far as how resources are being utilised in the company.”

Cadiz Corporate Solutions mining analyst Peter Major said he had been unsettled by what he heard during the session, saying that the cries about legacy issues seemed to be getting louder every year and that this did not bode well for the industry as a whole.

Although he acknowledged that these were valid concerns, he said the local mining industry would get left behind by its global competitors, who are looking forward while our sector is looking backwards.

“You know what happens when investors go on strike? You end up with 6 000 abandoned mines – that’s what happens,” said Major.


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