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Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa. Picture: SOWETAN
Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa. Picture: SOWETAN

The historical importance of five unions becoming meaningfully involved in the work at the Mandela Mining Precinct to modernise SA’s resources sector cannot be understated.

Understandably, unions representing their members in the 450,000-strong workforce have long regarded the critically important modernisation of SA’s mining sector as a threat to jobs in a country where unemployment is at a record high. Any potential threat to employment would clearly be anathema to organised labour.

The common refrain is that machines will replace people. It is a commonly held misconception and one that generates easy, sensational headlines and fear of the future in an environment in which change is inevitable, to make mining sustainable, safer, healthier and more productive.

The reality of the work done at the precinct in Johannesburg is that it is heavily focused on the people side of SA’s mineral industry, with safety, productivity, skills development and healthier working conditions at the core of all workstreams.

The precinct is the largest innovation public-private partnership in SA’s history, with the collaboration and funding of the precinct shared between the department of science & innovation and the Minerals Council SA.

It is drawing in the brightest minds to not only focus on the human side of mining but also to find ways to extend and maximise the value of mines. For gold mines, work along these lines is vital as the country continues its downward slide from the global top spot it held for decades until the early 2000s.

Intense negotiations

The unions are the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, the National Union of Mineworkers, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, Solidarity and Uasa.

It took two years of intensive negotiations, workshopping, site visits, study tours and technology showcases to bring an understanding of the necessity for modernisation of the sector that came to the country’s fiscal rescue in the past two years of severe economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The result of all that work and commitment from everyone involved has delivered an agreement on an organised labour consultative forum to bring the unions into the precinct and involve them meaningfully in the programmes and work plans.

This will not be a place for machinations and muscle-flexing by any party. The work under way is too important to be undermined by point scoring, and so mechanisms are built into a code of conduct in the terms of reference for the forum to avoid this becoming a flash point.

In two-month sessions at the start and end of each year, the unions will give their inputs into forthcoming workstreams and then be appraised on the outcomes of the programmes.

It is important that unions, and by extension employees, are incorporated into the vision for the future and the mines of tomorrow. It will provide comfort on the direction and intentions of modernisation.

Zero harm

SA has made incredible strides in its safety performance, hitting a record low number of fatalities in 2019, but there has been a worrying regression since then, not helped by the onset of the pandemic and the disrupted work patterns it entailed, as many mines were stopped in 2020 and then returned in carefully managed phases to full production over six months.

Mining companies are committed to zero harm at their operations and the research, development and innovation work done at the precinct will contribute to step changes towards achieving that goal, together with productivity improvements.

The precinct works closely with original equipment manufacturers and universities in its programmes. It is finalising agreements on a test mine to deliver a crucial site to take research and innovation ideas to the next level of proving them in an underground environment.

Dedicated representatives from the unions will participate in visits to underground trials, not only at the test mine but at working mines too, gaining an understanding of the benefits of the technology and modernisation programmes for the broader workforce.

The involvement of the unions will go far towards dispelling the notion of an “us and them” that pervades the discourse about mining in SA. Ultimately, it will create a more skilled, better-paid workforce in a safe and healthy environment.

The signatures of the terms of reference for the organised labour consultative forum reinforce the deep-seated collaboration needed from all parties to make SA mining a safe, healthy, modern, globally competitive, sustainable contributor to the country’s economy and that of the world.

• Fakude is president, and Baxter CEO, of the Minerals Council SA.

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