Mass strike paralyses South Africa's platinum belt

South Africa's hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) began a strike over pay in the platinum sector on Thursday, Jan 23, 2014, bringing mines that produce half the world's platinum to a standstill. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
South Africa's hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) began a strike over pay in the platinum sector on Thursday, Jan 23, 2014, bringing mines that produce half the world's platinum to a standstill. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

RUSTENBURG, South Africa (AFP) - Workers at South Africa's top three platinum producers downed tools for higher wages on Thursday, as police braced for potential violence and investors braced for more economic turmoil.

Up to 80,000 miners affiliated with the hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) want entry-level wages more than doubled to US$1,150 (S$1,470).

Mine owners, facing higher costs and squeezed profits, say that is unaffordable.

Top three companies Anglo-American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin confirmed that the strike had begun at their operations in the platinum belt, northwest of Johannesburg.

Amplats spokeswoman Mpumi Sithole said "the company has recorded low attendance" at three major facilities, and that it expects "production to be impacted by the strike action." Fearing the strike could spark violence in a region where over 40 people were killed during a wildcat strike in 2012, mine owners began shuttering operations on Wednesday night.

Police have stepped up security, but also ordered the organisers of the industrial action to "ensure that their strike is peaceful and they adhere to the picketing rules".

In previous strikes, non-union staff and members of rival unions have reported being threatened if they refuse to take part.

Tensions are high, and neither the unions or the companies can afford to capitulate.

After promises of vast wage hikes lured hard-up workers from rival unions, AMCU must prove to members it can deliver.

"We are going to get what we want," said 28-year-old rock drill operator Oliver Thipe at Amplats's Bathopele Mine.

"We have been struggling for a long time for the wages. This is the time for a better living wage. AMCU will bring it," he said.

But platinum firms, reeling from previous industrial action and facing growing competition abroad, must prove to boards and shareholders they still have a viable business model.

Amid the standoff, there was a partial reprieve for the gold sector late on Wednesday, with AMCU delaying strike action - also slated for Thursday - until a labour court rules on the legality of a work stoppage.

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