Platinium mine after platinum mine, the labour unrest in South Africa is spreading.
Terence Goodlace, chief executive at Impala, the world’s second-biggest platinum miner, warned on Thursday of a “significant risk to the industry.”
The warning came only a day after workers at two other platinum mines also demanded higher salaries and blocked the entrance to several underground pits, prompting concerns of full-blown industrial unrest in South Africa, one of the world’s most important commodity producers. The country is home not just to platinum but also to significant deposits of dozens of other minerals.
Yet, industry executives, analysts and bankers point out that the unrest so far remains concentrated in the restive platinum sector, with little sign that it is spreading to other commodities such as gold and iron ore, which have a history of better labour relations.
The violence – which has left at least 44 people dead and more than 70 injured – started two weeks ago when a group of drill operators at London-listed Lonmin demanded substantial wage increases amid a turf war between rival unions.
Platinum prices surged to a four-month high of $1,558.49 (U.S.) per troy ounce on Thursday, extending a rally to 12 per cent over the past week, as nearly a fifth of the world’s output was shut down to mark a memorial for the victims.
Peter Attard Montalto, analyst at Nomura, warned that the crisis at Lonmin was “only the tip of the iceberg,” adding that if the miner caves in and meets its workers’ wage demands, then demands by other workers “will increase across the mining sector and not just in platinum.” Some other executives share this concern.
Yet, the price of other metals and minerals for which South Africa is a key producer remains largely unaffected. The chamber of mines of South Africa says 95 per cent of the country’s mines are operating as normal.
But the central role that the country plays in the global natural resources market is keeping everyone on edge. South Africa holds the world’s largest reserves of more than a dozen minerals, including platinum, manganese, chromium, gold and aluminum silicate. On top of that, the country holds also considerable deposits of other commodities such as vanadium, zirconium, titanium, antimony, nickel, uranium, thermal coal and iron ore.
But the platinum industry differs in key respects from the rest of the mining sector, analysts say, and it is for these reasons that the unrest has so far been limited to that sector.
First, platinum is particularly labour-intensive and dangerous, with drillers working in difficult conditions in some of the deepest mines in the world. Ivan Glasenberg, the South African chief executive of Glencore, the commodities trader, notes that other mining sectors, such as coal, are generally “more mechanized.” Moreover, iron ore and coal are extracted largely from safer open-pit mines.
Second, wage negotiations in the South African platinum industry are largely conducted company by company, rather than under the umbrella of an industry association. This gives extra power to unions and can result in violent strikes.
Third, the combative Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union – a rival to the traditional long-dominant National Union of Mineworkers – has made large inroads among disaffected platinum workers, prompting more extreme demands. Nick Holland, chief executive of Gold Fields, says AMCU, the splinter union behind the original strike by rock drill operators at Lonmin’s mine, has not made noticeable inroads in winning members at its gold mines.
“One of the benefits in the gold industry … is that we have central bargaining agreements,” says Mr. Holland.
Finally, workers in other sectors, such as gold or ferrochrome, tend to live on site, with accommodation, medical care and housing facilities provided for them by mining companies. In contrast, in the platinum sector, workers are often bussed in from nearby villages, where living conditions are quite often precarious.
But ultimately, executives agree that these differences could mean little. Further violence could trigger a domino effect, hitting all of South Africa’s mines.
Additional reporting by Helen Thomas in London.