Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Support Mathunjwa as he battles anti-strike propaganda and bias

It is time to rally in support of Joseph Mathunjwa, head of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Workers Union (Amcu). He is no angel – such beings are very hard to find in our vexed, messy and conflict-ridden set-up. But Mathunjwa is leading a strike for a legitimate cause. It is actions such as the Amcu strike on the platinum belt that seek to fundamentally change the cheap the labour system that so much of capitalism in South Africa is so hooked on.

The union started off by demanding a monthly basic wage of R12500. The union has – contrary to propaganda – not stuck rigidly to this demand. It has compromised and its revised demand is that the R12500 basic wage be reached in a few years time.

The hard-headed, intransigent and over-confident employers ignored this shift for a long time. In their most recent response, the employers have made an offer which effectively shifts the goalposts – they agree to provide R12500 demand by 2017 - but including all allowances. This is the opposite of good faith negotiations. All along, the wage negotiations focused on the cash component – it is disingenuous to pretend to agree to meet the unions’s demand – but to do so by counting allowances already enjoyed by workers as part of the offer.

The union held a briefing on 5 May 2014 in Johannesburg. It argued that mine bosses have not been open and transparent about what they can afford. They have in fact miscalculated the number of miners, Amcu argued, and downplayed the resources available for employee remuneration. Amcu provided information that showed that mining companies can afford the R12 500 basic salary. “There is money to pay the workers. They can afford it. The amount budgeted for wages can in fact meet the demand,” Mathunjwa said.  

Sadly, some media representatives have joined the bullying tactics used against Amcu. In interviews, they have often been blatantly unfair to Mathunjwa and Amcu. In the presence of the management representatives, they often asked him questions such as: “When will you call off the strike?”, “Are you aware that workers are suffering?” and (in one case) “Are you still earning a salary?”. They also constantly remind Mathunjwa (not management) that the strike has led to losses of R23 billion in revenues and wages. They follow up this type of interrogation with sweetheart questions to the management spokesperson, often encouraging the latter to blame the union and to wax lyrical about the strike’s damage to South Africa.

Some sections of the media are more interested in ending the strike than finding the truth and attaining a just and sustainable outcome.

If one follows this shallow perspective on labour matters on the part of some media representatives, every strike in a major company is “damaging to South Africa”.

Apparently, the furthest thing from the minds of some in the media is the need to end huge income disparities that fuel conflict in our society. Or the need to engage with the reality that increased investment (something a strike-less society is said to ensure) often leads to jobless growth and a widening of the gap between haves and have-nots.

Journalists interviewing representatives of mining companies seldom ask them:

·       Whether wage increases for workers over the last 20 years have merely kept pace with inflation or significantly increased household income and improved workers’ lives?

·       What companies’ long term plans were to increase workers wages and benefits, and to end other evils associated with mining?

·       To what extent employers have actually moved from their initial position in the wage talks?

·       Details about revenue and expected profits.

·       Information about shareholder profits at different points in the last twenty years.

·       To discuss comparisons regarding remuneration for the same or similar mining jobs in other countries such as Australia.

The struggle for a living wage on South Africa’s platinum belt is an important one. How it is settled can take South Africa forward and, in a small way, transform things to ensure that more people share in the country’s mineral wealth. The employers and the unions are engaging each other in a robust manner, and thousands of workers are sacrificing to advance their interests. Other role-players such as the media and government should either back off or step in to ensure, firstly, that “truth” prevails about the realities facing workers and management and, secondly, that a fair fact-based settlement is reached.

Frank Meintjies

No comments: