Strikes have hit Africa’s biggest economy with a vengeance and the losses are high.
Hundreds of thousands of South African employees went on strike, crippling the gold mines, car factories, petrol forecourts, and the national airline South African Airways (SAA) in August and September.
Towards the beginning of September, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) ended a three-week strike of around 30,000 workers in the motor manufacturing industry, after accepting a revised wage offer from Volkswagen, Nissan, Ford and Toyota.
However, as car manufacturers returned to work, thousands of petrol station attendants, affiliated to Numsa, downed tools after serving a 48-hour notice of strike action.
Their demands included a R30 ($3) per hour increase and that maternity leave be paid in full.
The SAA employees, affiliated to the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), ended a 15-day strike a day later.
By far the most expensive strike was the one organized by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the gold mining industry, which was reported to have cost R32 million ($3.2 million) per day. In 2012, similar strikes cost companies R349 million ($35 million) a day and employees lost a total of R100 million ($10 million) in salaries each day.
The strike was effectively ended when NUM, the United Association of South Africa (Uasa) and Solidarity accepted an 8% wage hike, backing off from its initial demand of 15%.
In addition to the wage increase, the monthly living allowance of miners was raised from R1,640 ($164) to R2,000 ($200).
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), however, refused to accept the pay deal. The mining companies were taking a hard-line stance and refusing to give in to the demands while the union was threatening a second strike.
The morning after the strike began, when FORBES AFRICA visited the mining area in Carletonville, Johannesburg, a handful of NUM members gathered outside the union’s office at Sibanye Gold mine in Driefontein, as rival union members reported for work.
“An estimated 14,000 miners had downed tools in the area of Carletonville on Tuesday evening. Our members have not clocked in for the night shift at several mines. The strike is on,” says Mbuyiseli Hibana, NUM regional secretary.
Amcu spokesperson, Jimmy Gama, tells FORBES AFRICA the union had not been given a mandate and was considering strike action.
“We remain unchanged to our wage increase demands. We rejected the offered 6.5%. Amcu demands a living wage of R12,500 ($1,250) and R11,500 ($1,150) for underground and surface employees respectively,” says Gama.
All labor unions in the gold mining sector, besides Amcu, have accepted the revised offer and operations at the mines are back to normal.
The Chamber of Mines had confirmed that it would continue to talk with Amcu in an attempt to get everyone back to work.
“This tentative agreement is encouraging because it signals a number of important developments for an industry battered by labor instability, fast rising costs, declining market conditions, and continued regulatory uncertainty,” says mining analyst and Eunomix managing director, Claude Baissac.
“Unions have been forced to change their strategy from one of expecting large increases to one that is more achievable. If initial demands were completely unrealistic, these demands were largely part of the posturing unions are doing in relation to one another, notably NUM, and Amcu, the disruptive newcomer. They needed to show their members and each other that they will fight on for the best deal.”
That fight is far from over.