Union has “no alternative” but to strike at Sibanye-Stillwater gold operations

MINERS at Sibanye-Stillwater’s South African gold operations look set to down tools this month – barring a New Year miracle – after wage talks deadlocked late in 2021, setting the stage for a strike.

“Sibanye is leaving us with no alternative than to commence with a strike balloting process, if they are going to remain on the current exceptionally low offer and their failure to have constructive engagements,” Gideon du Plessis, General Secretary of the Solidarity trade union which represents mostly skilled workers and artisans, told Miningmx.

Solidarity is one of four unions which have presented a united front to Sibanye-Stillwater, the others being UASA, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). This quartet spans the ideological spectrum but unions in the mining sector have buried their differences as they seek to retain relevance in the face of mechanisation and other forces undermining their bargaining power.

The wage talks, which got nowhere under the arbitration of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, will almost certainly not advance further. Sibanye-Stillwater has made it clear that its latest offer was final on the grounds it cannot afford more even at current gold prices which are relatively robust at over $1,800 an ounce.

Sibanye-Stillwater’s offer for Category 4 – 8 employees, the lowest paid, is a monthly increase of R520 in year one; R610 in year two; and R640 in year three. Miners, artisans and officials would receive an increase of 4.1% in year one; 4.7% in year two; and 4.7% in year three. For the lowest-paid categories that will be in line with the current inflation rate of 5.5%.

Sibanye-Stillwater on 17 December offered an olive branch with an eye on the festive season, saying in a statement that it “has decided to pay employees at the South African gold operations back-pay for the months of July, August, September, October and November 2021 based on our current wage offer, even though we have not yet reached an agreement on wage negotiations with unions.”

“This is because we have heard from our employees that many people were counting on the wage settlement being reached before Christmas, and many people were counting on these increases for their families,” it said. “Any back-pay that may result from the final wage agreement we enter into once we reach an agreement will be reduced by the amount of back-pay paid now.”

Extra money can also come in handy in the event of a strike.

In this looming showdown between business and labour, Sibanye-Stillwater CEO, Neal Froneman probably has the best deck of cards at hand. The NUM union has said that given the money that Sibanye-Stillwater is making from its platinum group metal (PGM) operations, it should be able to afford a more generous offer in line with the one that Harmony Gold agreed with unions last year.

But Sibanye-Stillwater is adamant that it does not cross-subsidise between its assets. And that PGM cash will keep it afloat in the event of a protracted gold strike – a cushion that Harmony pointedly lacks.