Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa. Picture: REUTERS
Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa. Picture: REUTERS

Urgent applications lodged in court by 15 mining companies to prevent Thursday’s seven-day secondary strike called by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) may stop the action before it starts.

The secondary strike is an attempt by Amcu to force the end of a protracted strike at Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold mines and is seen by industry players as a high-stake effort by the union’s president Joseph Mathunjwa to show his power.

Amcu has issued notices at 15 gold and platinum mines, including AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony Gold and platinum companies Impala Platinum and Northam, as well as at Glencore, warning of a secondary strike from 28 February and ending on March 7.

Mining companies will argue in the labour court that a secondary strike can only be called if there is a direct link between the primary employer or company and those at which the secondary strike will be called, and which in this case does not exist.

Applications for an urgent decision were lodged on Friday with more expected on Monday and Tuesday.

Mathunjwa said the strike would “bring the mining sector to a standstill”.

Amcu has entered the fourth month of a wage strike at Sibanye-Stillwater’s three large gold mines, with 14,000 workers unpaid in a protected strike started by the union on November 21 to demand a R1,000/month salary increase.

Sibanye has taken a hard line on the strike and has refused to budge on the wage demand, saying it would violate a three-year wage agreement with three other unions at its gold mines.

There is a tremendous legal battle in the background as Sibanye and Amcu argue in court about whether the union retains a slight majority over the other three unions, who signed the wage deal with the company, and whether the agreement can be imposed on Amcu, rendering the strike unprotected.

Froneman took a tough stance at the Modder East gold mine when he was CEO and at the Ezulwini mine under Sibanye, when protracted unprotected strikes resulted in the dismissal of thousands of strikers refusing to return to work.

Sibanye’s platinum mines had enough stockpiled material to sit out a seven-day strike, with no impact on the business, Froneman said.

“We can afford this strike for a much longer period. There are many other levers we can pull, but that’s not the smart thing to do. It’s clear Amcu is resorting to desperate measures trying to take out the industry on strike, which I don’t believe they can legally do,” he said.

“We are particularly concerned about the wellbeing of our employees who desperately want the strike to end,” he said.

The deadlock, in which both Mathunjwa and Sibanye CEO Neal Froneman have left no room for compromise based on their public comments, is costing Sibanye up to R20m a day.

The Minerals Council SA, the mining industry body, said 71% of SA’s gold mines were unprofitable or marginal in 2018 and half the country’s platinum mines were in a similar position.

“It is unfathomable that Amcu would willingly call for secondary strikes in an industry that is already in jeopardy,” said council CEO Roger Baxter.

Amcu is demanding an annual wage increase of R1,000 a month instead of the R700/month Sibanye agreed with three other unions for the first two years of a wage agreement and R825/month extra in the third year.

Based on the salaries lost so far and the duration of the strike, it would take Amcu members at least 10 years to recoup their lost salaries in the unlikely event of the company acceding to Mathunjwa’s wage demand.

Amcu called the wage strike at Sibanye’s gold mines on November 21, coinciding exactly with the Competition Tribunal’s conditional approval of Sibanye taking over platinum miner Lonmin, leading to speculation the two events were connected.

Amcu fiercely opposes the Lonmin takeover, arguing jobs would be lost as a consequence despite the unprofitable nature of Lonmin’s business historically which meant it would have to restructure its assets regardless of the transaction.

Meanwhile, the strike has exacerbated the already unprofitable position of five shafts in Sibanye’s gold division and the company has launched a formal process with unions and the department of mineral resources to close or restructure the shafts, with about 6,600 jobs potentially affected, cutting 140,000oz of gold out of Sibanye’s production.