Mines unrest not solved by ending migrant labour

[miningmx.com] – RESPONDING to questions in the National Assembly, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe expressed a hope that the one positive that could be drawn from the three months of crippling strikes in South Africa’s mining sector would be the abolition of the migrant labour system. “And I believe it is possible to eliminate it,’ said Motlanthe.

He has been joined in his criticism of migrant labour by Peter Leon, an attorney at Webber Wentzel. “In the 21st century, with two versions of the mining charter, is it acceptable that we have a migrant labour system where there are poor living conditions, workers with two families, high indebtedness and endemic risk to banks?,’ he asked.

There are doubts, however, as to whether the migrant labour system – which has its roots in South Africa’s apartheid past – can be abolished or, in fact, whether it even should be. Rather, the case seems to be to adapt the migrant labour system.

Mark Cutifani, CEO of AngloGold Ashanti, said in an interview with Miningmx that the gold producer was looking at a labour rotation system that allowed miners to return to their “traditional’ homes on a quarterly basis. Most of the rock drillers in the platinum and gold industries, for instance, are sourced from the Eastern Cape, or from neighbouring countries such as Mozambique and Lesotho, and are allowed to return home annually.

Switching to a quarterly leave roster may discourage the development of “second families’ in which migrant workers establish local households with second wives or girlfriends in the shanties around the mines, again encouraged by the abolition of the single-sex hostels and paid-for by “living-out allowances’. “The big challenge is whether the employees would actually return home,’ says Cutifani.

Second families become a drain on employee salaries and frequently force migrant miners into the usurious agreements with shark loans. The extent of garnishee orders on miner salaries has become a well highlighted feature of the strike action, especially at the platinum mines where indebtedness was considered an element of the salary discontent.

The thinking, however, is that if allowed to return home more frequently, miners are more likely to return a greater proportion of their salaries where they would be best spent.

In an article for Business Day, Paul Kapelus, a director of Synergy Global Consulting, said workers should be encouraged to set about their own regional development schemes rather than relying on Government, or the social and labour initiatives of companies which sometimes perform the function of surrogate Government.

Local economies in the Eastern Cape rely on the income generated from mines employment in Gauteng; in fact, jobs are handed down from generation to generation. So entrenched is the system, that mines also remain dependent on traditional sources of labour.

“What would we do with our employees, many of whom have been with us for 15 or 20 years,’ says Graham Briggs, CEO of Harmony Gold who has also defended the company’s hostel system. “A lot has been said about hostels without understanding what they are about,’ he said at the company’s September quarter results announcement.

There can be a process of sourcing more mining employees from surrounding urban areas, but an immediate policy switch seems unrealistic and logistically impossible, said Harmony’s Briggs in an interview in September.

Speaking at a recent junior mining conference in Johannesburg, Michael Spicer, vice-president at Business Leadership SA, said that altering the pattern of migrant labour away from rural areas to urban centres would be damaging to the rural economies. “The idea that labour can be drawn from urban areas is a fantasy,’ he said. “Migrant labour will be around for a long time and there should be no immediate policy change.’

It doesn’t seem feasible to makes changes even where the labour is sourced from Mozambique and Lesotho.

According to Elize Strydom, senior executive for employment relations at the Chamber of Mines, South African stands to contravene bi-lateral trade agreements with its SADC partners were it to outlaw migrant labour. “It has to be maintained for socio-economic reasons,’ she said.