NUM & AMCU oppose reopening of mines in South Africa

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AMCU members and their families at Lonmin’s Marikana mine on August 16th 2019, seven years after the massacre when 34 miners were shot dead by police during their strike over pay and unsafe conditions

THE South African mining sector’s two union rivals – the NUM and AMCU – have a common cause: Strident opposition to the reopening of the sector in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And as the industry aims for a complete return to work from 1 June 2020, this is potentially a massive spanner in the works and a political headache for Mineral and Energy Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe.
Labour opposition to the mining sector’s reboot is growing, with the massive outbreak of Covid-19 at AngloGold Ashanti’s Mponeng operation – the world’s deepest mine, in western Gauteng – a possible tipping point. On Tuesday, 26 May, the mine had recorded 196 Covid-19 cases among its workforce.
It has been temporarily closed while contact tracing is carried out and its infrastructure subjected to a deep clean and sanitisation: the NUM insists it cannot be reopened until the entire workforce has been tested. This seems highly unlikely after Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said there had been a decline in national testing because of a global shortage of testing kits.
‘Everyone at Mponeng must be tested before they go back,’ NUM General Secretary David Sipunzi has told Business Maverick. So, what is the union’s strategy?
‘Our intention is first to engage the companies to do thorough testing. Failing that, we may invoke the fact that our members don’t have to enter the workplace if they feel it is dangerous,’ Sipunzi said.
That could involve the use of Section 23 of the Mine Health and Safety Act, which says that an ‘employee has the right to leave any working place whenever – (a) circumstances arise at that working place which, with reasonable justification, appear to that employee to pose a serious danger to the health or safety of that employee; or (b) the health and safety representative responsible for that working place directs that employee to leave that working place.’ But can it be legally invoked in the case of a pandemic?
‘We strongly believe that an employee will be justified in leaving the workplace in terms of section 23 if they have reasonable fears of Covid-19 infection – for instance, if there are infections at the mine where they work. This will be strengthened if the employee has co-morbidities such as silicosis or TB,’ Johan Lorenzen, a lawyer at Richard Spoor Attorneys, told Business Maverick.
David Sipunzi has also said that the union might consider litigation over the issue with individual companies, or possibly the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE). ‘We will do whatever it takes to save our members from being infected,’ he said. ‘Nothing stops us from litigating on the matter.’
AMCU has already done so in a case that saw the Labour Court order the DMRE to gazette minimum Covid-19 standards for the mining industry. But AMCU also wants universal testing in the mining industry.
Under lockdown, it is difficult to independently verify the concerns among the union rank and file. Many no doubt feel they have no choice but to return to work because they cannot afford the loss of income.
This is fast becoming a political challenge for Mining and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who of course formerly headed the NUM and has long relied on the union as one of his key bases of support in the governing ANC.
Mantashe spearheaded the drive to reopen the mining industry ahead of most other sectors – moves that were opposed by both the NUM and AMCU since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. Indeed, the tone of both unions on the issue has become increasingly strident.
‘All mine managers whose companies are not adhering to the Covid-19 regulations must be arrested. We will not allow a situation where our members and other workers are sacrificed for profits by these heartless and evil mining companies,’ the NUM said in a statement on Tuesday, 26 May. It has also singled out Mantashe in previous statements in which it expressed opposition to the sector’s reopening, though it has not done so more recently.
Under lockdown, it is difficult to independently verify the concerns among the union rank and file. Many no doubt feel they have no choice but to return to work because they cannot afford the loss of income.
But mineworkers generally have a high level of awareness around health and safety issues – it is part of the job. This is also an industry that has historically been blighted by occupational diseases such as silicosis and TB. The hard-line taken by both unions on the issue probably reflects the concerns of their members.
And most now live off the mine premises, so the pandemic may well be rapidly spreading in the grim shanty-towns that ring many of the mines. The clusters of cases appearing in the mines would strongly suggest this is the case.
Mantashe is no longer a formal union member, and as a Cabinet minister, he must respond to the needs and demands of all stakeholders, from the boardroom to the coalface. In the face of Covid-19, that makes for an extremely difficult balancing act.
Still, he faces almost blanket union opposition to his policies on this key issue. AMCU built its brand partly on perceptions – fairly or unfairly – that NUM’s leadership had grown too close to capital. (AMCU critics in NUM would say it also uses violence and intimidation: allegations which it has always denied.)
Now Mantashe appears to be siding with the industry, against both NUM and AMCU. This could have profound implications for the politics of South Africa’s labour movement – one of many ways in which the pandemic is proving to be a game-changer.
• ‘The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) notes the statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing the decision by the National Coronavirus Command Council to move the country to Level 3 of the Covid-19 lockdown levels from the 1st June 2020 as part of government’s ‘‘Risk Adjusted Strategy’’.
‘The announcement of the downgrade takes place amidst growing numbers of infections and mortalities. As things stand, there are 22,583 positive cases identified and 429 deaths, while testing continues to take place on a daily basis. These numbers necessitate that more stringent and effective plans to combat the spread of Covid-19 are put in place as a matter of urgency.
‘The national union calls for more screening and testing to take place especially in townships and rural areas, so as to ascertain the true extent of the spread of the virus. More still needs to be done in arresting and containing the spread of the virus, especially on frontline workers who are the bedrock of our national response and our first line of defence.
‘NEHAWU will urgently engage government to make it illegal for employers to compel workers to work without Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs).
‘We welcome the government’s approach of protecting the health of our people while also protecting people’s jobs and livelihoods. We are in favour of the two-pronged approach that seeks to kick-start the economy while also putting measures in place to provide access to healthcare during the pandemic.
‘The coronavirus has caused unprecedented damage to the economy coupled with an unacceptable number of deaths, job losses, and loss of personal income of millions of our people. In this regard, we support our federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), in calling for a bold and decisive supplementary budget that must be driven by the motive to retain jobs and kick-start the economy.
‘Moreover, we hope that the Minister of Finance will use that opportunity to do the right thing and make money available to honour the last leg of Resolution 1 of 2018 especially clause 3.3 as signed at the bargaining council.
‘We also welcome the commitment to monitor and re-evaluate the lockdown status of hotspot provinces like Gauteng, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape. The national union will intensify its awareness campaign including ensuring the compliance to all health safety measures in workplaces and educational institutions.
‘We will continue to encourage all South Africans to obey lockdown regulations including the wearing of masks, washing of hands and observing social distancing at all times.
‘On the return to work of public servants
‘Under level three most of our members who are public servants will be returning to work on the 1st June 2020. NEHAWU will monitor the state of readiness of workplaces and will not hesitate to stop workers from returning from workplaces that are not safe.
‘We note government’s assurance that they will do everything possible to protect our members and workers. However, we remain very sceptical as our government has proven to be very unreliable and untrustworthy as demonstrated by their refusal to fully implement binding collective bargaining agreements.
‘As most workers will be returning to works as part of the Risk Adjusted Strategy NEHAWU calls on employers to ensure the following:

  • Disinfection of workplaces before workers occupy them.
  • Limit staff complement to ensure social distancing.
  • Sufficient PPEs and sanitisers.
  • Training on the proper and safe use of PPEs.
  • Regular screening of workers.
  • Training of workers on infection control and prevention.
  • Promotion of high standards of hygiene and clean ablution facilities.
  • Allow workers over the age of 60 and those with comorbidities to work from home.

‘The employer has an obligation to provide and maintain a workplace that is safe and without risk to the health of workers as per dictates of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act as amended. In this regard, the national union will continue to monitor the compliance to OHS standards by healthcare facilities and will report transgressors to the Department of Employment and Labour and the police for criminal charges. NEHAWU reiterates its call for inspectors to enforce and monitor compliance by frequenting workplaces and exposing transgressors.
On higher education
‘We note the announcement by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, that 33% of students will be returning to campuses during level three. Moreover, we note the engagements planned for later this week with trade unions on the opening of campuses. NEHAWU will participate fully, however, we will not allow our members, workers and students to return to post schooling institutions without the fulfilment of the following demands:

  • Disinfection of all buildings 5 days prior to workers and students coming to campus.
  • Provision of masks, gloves and sanitisers.
  • Mobile clinics for screening and testing.
  • Establishment of Occupational Health and Safety committees in each workplace in line with the law.

‘We continue to have continuous engagements with our reliable ally, the South African Congress of Students (SASCO), on the role the student-worker alliance can play in mitigating the dangers of the pandemic in our campuses.’
Issued by Khaya Xaba, NEHAWU National Spokesperson,
25th May 2020.