The prospects of a strike affecting coal mines supplying state-run power utility Eskom are good as three unions and the Chamber of Mines fell out this week over the structure of forthcoming wage talks.

Wage talks were due to start in June but the chamber, representing seven coal companies of vastly disparate sizes and three unions fell out over a mandate from the companies to negotiate directly with unions rather than use the centralised bargaining process this year.

Eskom is understood to be in informal contact with the chamber to keep tabs on the likelihood of a strike and prepare its coal stockpiles accordingly.

A protracted strike in the coal sector could have negative
consequences for Eskom.

There was a 10-day strike in the 2015 round of two-year wage talks.

Companies felt the differing sizes, financial and operational capacities of the seven companies, which include three small firms with several hundred employees, meant the big companies were sometimes dragged into strikes they could have avoided by negotiating directly with unions, said Motsamai Motlhamme,
the chamber’s head of employment relations.

The unions accused the chamber of negotiating in bad faith and said they would lodge the dispute with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), seeking a strike certificate.

Centralised wage talks have been a feature of the coal industry for years, but the chamber’s centralised bargaining coal members including Anglo American Coal, Exxaro and Glencore, have pointed to 14 other coal companies in the chamber negotiating wages directly with unions.

The unions involved in months of talks comprise the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Solidarity and Uasa. They accused the chamber of negotiating in "bad faith" around how wage talks would be conducted in 2017.

The NUM’s chief coal sector negotiator, Peter Bailey, said the chamber had told the unions on Tuesday it had "misrepresented their members" and so did not have a mandate from the coal firms to continue with centralised wage talks due to start in coming months.

"We felt that we were being disrespected, misled, abused and we were driven to a process where we felt we could no longer tolerate this behaviour," Bailey said, adding the NUM would refer the matter to the CCMA for a strike certificate and it would then begin a national strike.

Solidarity’s deputy general secretary of the mining industry, Connie Prinsloo, said the chamber had earlier in January indicated that centralised negotiations would form the basis of wage talks, but reversed this decision at Tuesday’s meeting.

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