Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Wage talks in the coal sector got off to the worst possible start after unions declared a dispute with the Chamber of Mines after months of talks to decentralise negotiations ended acrimoniously and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) threatened a national strike.

The companies represented by the chamber include the largest suppliers of coal to Eskom, the state-owned power utility. A protracted strike in the coal sector could have negative consequences for Eskom.

Centralised wage talks have been a feature of the coal industry for years, but the chamber’s coal members, including Anglo American Coal, Exxaro and Glencore, have said they would prefer to negotiate salary increases and working conditions separately with unions this year.

The unions involved in months of talks comprise the NUM, Solidarity and United Association of SA (Uasa). They accused the chamber of negotiating in "bad faith" around how wage talks would be conducted this year and declared a dispute with the intention of calling a strike.

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 companies to continue with centralised wage talks due to start in coming months.

"We then 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 that the NUM would refer the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) for a strike certificate and it would then begin a national strike.

"If the Chamber of Mines wants an unproductive mining industry, if it is in search of the collapse of the coal sector industry and if the Chamber of Mines wants anarchy, we can respond with anarchy," he said.

The chamber said at a meeting on Tuesday that the matter of decentralising talks was again discussed but no agreement was reached. "The unions declared a dispute and the chamber is awaiting formal notice of this dispute. The chamber remains open to further engagements with the unions on the matter."

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 this year, but reversed this decision at Tuesday’s meeting.

"Solidarity is extremely perturbed by this state of affairs and believes the Chamber’s actions signal that it is negotiating in bad faith," said Prinsloo.

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