JOHANNESBURG, July 10 (Reuters) – “A living wage” is the battle cry of South Africa’s Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) as it and rival unions plunge into pay talks this month with mining houses.
But what is a living wage for a South African miner? Finding a definition, no easy task, has become the goal of an increasingly militant labour force demanding pay increases ranging from 15 to 150 percent, which mining companies can ill afford as precious metals prices tumble and costs surge.
Wage negotiations in the gold sector kick off on Thursday. The issue is complicated by many variables and by the difficulty of defining fair pay for work that may often require only low levels of skill but is very tough and dangerous.
“It’s difficult to put a number on a living wage,” said Boitumelo Sethlatswe, a researcher at the South African Institute of Race Relations.
“It depends how many people are in your household, and are there people in your household with access to social grants such as for old age pensions and child support,” she said.
AMCU, which has emerged as the dominant union on the platinum belt and made inroads into gold after poaching tens of thousands of members from the once unrivalled National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), certainly has a number in mind.
It has submitted demands to South African gold producers, which include AngloGold Ashanti and Harmony Gold , calling for a more than doubling of the monthly basic wage for entry-level miners to 12,500 rand ($1,300) from 5,000 rand.
It wants a similar increase from Anglo American Platinum , the world’s top producer of that metal. NUM’s demands to gold producers are for raises of between 15 and 60 percent.
That sounds steep but probably does not seem unreasonable if you go underground – in hot, difficult and potentially lethal conditions – to toil for just a few hundred dollars a month.
But the basic wage is not the whole picture.
According to South Africa’s Chamber of Mines, the main body representing the industry, basic wages in the gold sector are supplemented by other benefits, cash and non-cash, which can translate into 8,800 rand a month in costs to a company.
These take the form of meals, housing, and other allowances. Bonuses and overtime can take the total up to 11,000 rand a month. Mining houses have not waded into the debate about what a living wage is, but looking from the perspective of the cost to companies, they have said they simply cannot afford big rises.
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