The National Steering Committee (NSC) of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) met in Johannesburg over the past weekend. The meeting received a detailed report from representatives of the Amplats Workers’ Committee on current worker mobilisation to fight and stop the retrenchments at Amplats. These retrenchments were announced on 15th January and threaten the jobs of some 14,000 workers at 4 mines (Khuseleka 1&2, Khomanani 1 & 2) in Rustenburg, and the Union Mine in Pilanesberg which Amplats threatens to sell. This is equivalent to 3% of the national mine workforce. After the 15th January announcement, the statutory 90-day consultation and negotiation process is due to end on 15th April. After this date, the Labour Relations Act provides for another 2 months until 15th June before the retrenchments can start. However, Chris Griffith, the Amplats CEO, told investment analysts in February that the retrenchment process is unlikely to extend beyond April (‘Time benefit possible in ‘constructive’ Govt/Anglo talks’, Mining Weekly, 15th February 2013). This is negotiating in bad faith.
Already, Amplats has broken a previous agreement with workers. The workers at Amplats agreed to return to work after their historic strike on three conditions:
i) No arrests of workers due to conflicts that happened during the strike
ii) The early start of wage negotiations
iii) No retrenchments
Workers were arrested at Dichaba and the company has not started wage talks. Instead, the company announced plans to retrench 14,000 workers. To add insult to injury, on 19 February company security shot 13 workers at the Siphumelele mine for demonstrating against the re-imposition of the NUM by the Amplats bosses and the ANC government.
The DLF rejects the Amplats retrenchments and calls on Amplats to negotiate in good faith. The DLF fully supports the decision of all Amplats workers to resist, fight and stop the retrenchments. The DLF calls on government to support worker resistance to the retrenchments. The DLF calls on government to use its power to ensure that not a single job is lost at Amplats. The retrenchments are unnecessary and a deliberate attack by Amplats against workers’ demands for a living wage.
As Amplats’ annual reports and reports from Statistics South Africa show, the mining bosses are milking it from the sweat and toil of thousands of black workers. Since the 1990s, the platinum mining sector has risen fast and has become a bigger sector than gold or coal. From 1994 to 2009, platinum output in South Africa expanded by 67% in response to skyrocketing global prices. This led to massive profits which attracted huge inflows of foreign capital into platinum mines in the North West and Limpopo provinces. In 2001, Amplats became the first South African company to report an annual profit of US$1billion earned solely from its domestic operations. In 2007 and 2008, Amplats paid R29,7 billion to its shareholders whilst the total wage bill for the platinum sector was R26,5 billion for these years. In other words, a few hundred shareholders were paid R3,2 billion more than at least 100,000 mine workers in the platinum sector as a whole. In this period of massive profitability, instead of rising along with profits, workers’ wages in the platinum sector declined relative to profits. In 1998, of all the money made from platinum, 60% went to workers and 40% went to profits. In 2010, this had changed to 27% going to workers’ wages and the remaining 73% being profits. Even worse, these profits did not stay in South Africa. Rather they were shipped to Anglo American (Amplat’s parent company), which, thanks to the ANC’s neoliberal macroeconomic policy, now has its primary listing in London. Even before the Marikana-inspired strikes in the platinum belt, Amplats had been planning retrenchments in order to maintain short-termist profit-maximisation at the expense of thousands of workers and their families.
Over the last two years, platinum bosses and mainstream media have falsely claimed that the post-2008 fall in the global price of platinum has reduced profits below sustainable levels and therefore justifies retrenchments. But the problems are greatly over-exaggerated. The average platinum price since the global financial crash of 2008 has still been almost double that during the ‘boom’ period of the early to mid-2000s, and almost three times the average platinum price in the 1990s. And Amplats has continued to make substantial profits since 2008. It claims that the four mines threatened with closure are unprofitable but Amplats’ own figures show otherwise. In 2010, the Khomanani 1& 2 mines contributed R129 million to company profits in 2010. In 2011 this increased to R234 million. In 2010, the Khuseleka mine contributed R290 million. In 2011, this was R341 million. The same Amplats’ reports show that the shafts became more profitable because labour productivity increased: workers worked harder and produced more. In all these mines threatened with closure, labour productivity increased by 20% for the 2010-2011 years and the volume of platinum produced 30% from 2010 to 2011. During the same period of increased worker productivity and profitability the remuneration of the Amplats directors (just 22 people) increased by 30% at the same time that the company held workers’ wages down and claimed that the company was in crisis. By the end of 2011, the combined annual pay of the top two individuals at Amplats was R34 million. Amplats’ good fortunes have benefitted shareholders and managers, and punished workers.
Amplats accounts for 40% of global platinum production and controls the bulk of South Africa’s platinum reserves, which are by far the largest in the world. Rather than being a ‘price-taker’, it is thus uniquely empowered to ‘make’ the world price by controlling supply – the essence of its long-term strategy. The retrenchments are therefore about reducing production in order to boost the global price and maintain profitability, and once market conditions improve the threatened shafts in Rustenburg will be bought back on stream. Indeed, Amplats and financial analysts alike have repeatedly stated that the mid- to long-term prospects of the platinum industry are good. In its interim financial report (June 2012), Amplats not only says that ‘despite the current short-term challenges, the longer term outlook for the platinum business remains attractive, but boasts that ‘with its superior asset base in terms of extent and reef type, [Amplats] is well positioned to adjust project prioritisation and scheduling to match future demand’.
Beyond platinum, generally South African mining companies are guaranteed high profitability on the back of cheap black labour and a compliant government. It is no surprise that other workers at the Exxaro coal mines in the Mpumalanga province and the construction site at the Medupi power station in Lephalale also went out on strike in the last two weeks to demand a living wage. The DLF supports the demands and struggles of these Exxaro and Medupi workers.
The foregoing show that privately owned mines undermine democratic accountability, wealth redistribution, a living wage and job creation. For this reason, the DLF calls for sustained worker and community mass struggles to demand and win the democratic public ownership of mines under workers’ democratic control in conjunction with the local communities in the mining areas. The ANC and capitalists may think that the ANC Mangaung has buried what it saw as the spectre of nationalisation. We know that the ongoing exploitation of mine workers, mining-affected communities and the environment underline with each passing day the need for public ownership of our mineral resources: all the minerals underneath the soil must be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole. Only then can production be planned on the basis of need rather than falling victim to the private corporations, whose competitive scramble is the root cause of the sector’s recurrent crises of over-accumulation. There must be massive state investment in industries that use platinum in socially useful products like catalytic converters and fuel cells, which hold out the hope of eliminating environmentally harmful emissions. The platinum sector must be a driving force of a new low-carbon economy that creates hundreds of thousands of quality climate jobs that are well-paid and secure. It must benefit the majority that produce the wealth rather than the minority who steal it, and create havoc, misery and despair for us all in their endless pursuit of profit.
AMCU, as the new union of the Amplats workers, must play an important role in the fight against the retrenchments. Beyond the union’s role, the DLF is aware that it is not union bureaucracies that will win this fight. It is thousands of united, organised, fighting and militant workers who will successfully defend their jobs and win a living wage. It is with the class solidarity of all other workers in mines and other industries, as well as the solidarity of the unemployed and mining-affected communities that the Amplats can put pressure on Amplats and government. It is this united action which must pressurise the pro-capitalist ANC government to use its power by reviewing the mining licence of Amplats to insert a no-retrenchments clause. The ANC government has the power to take such action instead of its current narrow focus to protect the profits of mining capital alongside the development of a class of black mining capitalists.
The DLF calls on all Amplats workers and other mine workers to bring all their mass power, determination, resolve, unity and militancy in order to stop these retrenchments. It is workers’ united power and ability to close down all the Amplats shafts that can force the bosses to cancel their retrenchment plans. The resolutions of last week’s COSATU Collective Bargaining Conference can only come to life through such worker action. Working with the Amplats Workers’ Committee, the DLF is an active part of worker mobilisation against these retrenchments.
The DLF calls on all other workers and the entire South African labour movement to join and support this crucial struggle of Amplats workers. This struggle will determine whether workers can win a living wage. As we saw with last week’s announcement by the Free Market Foundation of a legal challenge to labour laws, the bosses and their ideologues in South Africa are determined to destroy worker militancy for a living wage and to keep South Africa a low wage economy. If the Amplats workers are defeated and retrenched, the door will be open in all other industries for the bosses to defeat the confidence and militancy of fighting workers. The DLF is aware that Lonmin and Implats bosses are also planning their own round of retrenchments. To allow any of these retrenchments would be to surrender hundreds of thousands of workers to unemployment and starvation wages, and millions of families to lives of penury, whilst leaving the platinum and other mine bosses with restored profits and continued exploitation of cheap black labour that underpins South African capitalism. Therefore, the Amplats’ retrenchments must be resisted and stopped with all the necessary worker action, political action and solidarity across the length and breadth of the country and internationally.
The DLF meeting also reviewed reports of the responses of commercial farmers against the 52% wage settlement victory scored by farm workers earlier this month. Commercial farmers are now seeking to evade paying the R105 minimum wage as many of them have applied to government for exemptions. Many are also threatening to replace labour with machinery, raise rents and charges for electricity and water, threatening evictions and victimising worker leaders and so on. This is unacceptable and requires government to act decisively in favour of farm workers and the broader landless mass of rural people. The DLF will continue with its work to organise farm workers to defend the victory and to stop the farm retrenchments. The DLF calls for ongoing solidarity with farm worker struggles. In the long-term, this organisation of farm workers and dwellers must be extended to demand state-led land redistribution to farm workers and transformative agrarian reform as a basis for a transformed countryside. This is the only way to end baaskap and exploitation in the commercial farms.
The failing ANC state and service delivery
Beyond the workplace, the unemployed are also fighting against the anti-poor capitalist policies and failures of the ANC government: a failing state, lack of accountability, poor housing, poor service delivery, anti-poor cost-recovery in what should be free basic services, inadequate and expensive public health and transport systems. These conditions sustain and reproduce violence against women, criminality and other social crises . All this underlines the need for sustained working class mobilisation as we have seen with the Unemployed People’s Movement’s work in support of the murdered Thandiswa Qubuda and the 6th March march to the Moqhaka Municipality led by the Rammulutsi and Viljoenskroon Crisis Committee (RVCC). Both the UPM and the RVCC are DLF affiliates. Like millions of other unemployed people, the people of Rammulutsi are fed up with false promises and failure of the ANC government to end apartheid and capitalist logics and geographies. The mass of the unemployed are demanding a universal social wage of free public goods and services, and employment. Millions of women demand equality, freedom and self-dignity. Sustained unity and mass action by workers and the unemployed for wealth redistribution and democratisation of the economy are the only way forward to win a just South Africa.