South African Government Meets Labor Unions as Strike Threatens to Spread
South Africa’s government met with union leaders late yesterday to look for solutions to a 10-day strike by state workers that may spread next week to gold and platinum mines.
Public Service and Administration Minister Richard Baloyi met with leaders of groups represented by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, his spokesman, Dumisani Nkwamba, said in a phone interview from the capital, Pretoria, today.
“There is an urgent need that the public-sector strike is ended,” Nkwamba said. “It was a private meeting. It’s part of the government’s ongoing effort” to resolve the strike. He declined to give further details.
Nurses, teachers and other state workers went on strike on Aug. 18 after the government rejected their demands to raise pay by 8.6 percent and increase a monthly housing allowance to 1,000 rand ($137). The strike is spreading to other industries, with Cosatu calling for a one-day national strike on Sept. 2, including workers at the country’s gold and platinum mines, as well as construction and electricity companies.
“Mineworkers are angry that when their servants, the public sector workers, ask for a mere pittance, they are met with resistance and threatened with dismissals by those in power,” the National Union of Mineworkers said in a statement today. The strike by 320,000 NUM members will “ensure that every mining operation, every construction site and every energy worker joins the public sector strike in different forms.”
The national strike may affect mines run by Melbourne-based BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s biggest mining company, and Zug, Switzerland-based Xstrata Plc, the largest exporter of coal used for power. South Africa is the world’s largest producer of platinum, manganese, chrome and the continent’s biggest miner of gold.
The rand has dropped 1.1 percent against the dollar since the strike began, while the benchmark FTSE/JSE Africa All Share index has declined 3.3 percent.
Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union and Thembeka Gwagwa, general secretary of the Democratic Nurses Organization of South Africa, said they weren’t at yesterday’s meeting with the minister. Freddie Mohau, general secretary of the South African Democratic Nurses Unions, and Nathi Theledi, general secretary of the Police and Civil Rights Unions, also didn’t attend. Fikile Majola, general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union, didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone.
“I am not aware of such a meeting,” Themba Maseko, the government’s chief spokesman, said in a mobile phone interview from Pretoria. “There are attempts to meet with the unions to convince them to return to the bargaining chamber, but nothing is scheduled as far as I know.”
Chris Klopper, chairman of the Independent Labor Caucus, which groups 10 unions representing about 460,000 workers, said he is seeking an urgent meeting with Baloyi.
“The thrust of the meeting is to see what suggestions he has to take us out of this impasse,” Klopper said in a phone interview from Pretoria. “We’ll take any new offer to our members.”
The government has offered to increase wages by 7 percent and the housing allowance to 700 rand. That will increase budgeted expenditure for the year by 5 billion rand, according to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Salaries account for 32 percent of the state’s 850 billion rand annual spending.
Thousands of workers marched in cities across the country yesterday to put pressure on the government to increase its pay offer. Hospitals have been forced to turn patients away, while some striking teachers picketing outside schools have prevented pupils from attending classes.
About 19 percent of the 8,194 people employed at immigration points and offices that issue passports and identity documents have joined the strike, Mkeseli Apeleni, director- general of the Department of Home Affairs, said in an e-mailed statement today.
“We have written to President Jacob Zuma to intervene in the strike,” Vincent Moagi, spokesman for the South African Human Rights Commission, said in a phone interview from Johannesburg today. “We are concerned about the impact on the poor. Pregnant women and children are being turned away at hospitals.”