Union joins South African gold mine strike

Trade union group Solidarity joined a crippling strike by South African gold miners on Tuesday to press demands for higher wages in an action that has brought mines to a standstill, Reuters reports.

Solidarity spokesman Reint Dykema told Reuters the group’s 10,000 members had started to stay away, bringing the total number in South Africa’s first industry-wide strike in 18 years to about 110,000.

The strike was the latest and biggest of a series of strikes and industrial actions taken in recent weeks in South Africa, which is plagued by huge income gaps between the rich and mostly black poor, more than a decade after the end of white minority rule, Reuters reports.

The huge National Union of Mineworkers launched the strike on Sunday and Chamber of Chamber of Mines head negotiator Frans Barker reportedly said it had brought mines to a standstill.

The strike paralyzed the South African mines of the world’s No. 2 gold producer AngloGold Ashanti, fourth-ranked Gold Fields, sixth-placed Harmony Gold and South Deep, Barker reportedly said Monday.

The chamber, which negotiates wages on behalf of gold producers, reportedly estimated a daily loss of around 40,000 ounces of gold production and 130 million rand ($20.17 million) in combined lost revenue per day due to the strike.

Two unions called the strike after rejecting the latest offer by the Chamber of Mines of a 4.5 to 5 percent wage rise plus bonus payments.

Unions are demanding a rise of between 10 and 12 percent.

In 11th-hour talks on Sunday, AngloGold and South Deep, a joint venture of South Africa’s Western Areas and Canada’s Placer Dome offered wage rises of between 5.25 and 6.5 percent, the NUM said.

The NUM reportedly said its “point of reference” in talks was wage increases of between seven to eight percent, a one percent raise in the miners’ risk cover, and higher accommodation allowances.

Miners, some of whom descend nearly 2 miles underground to drill ore in sweltering narrow tunnels, typically earn $386.40-$463.70 per month, Reuters reports.

A third 15,000-strong union, the United Association of South Africa (Uasa), mostly made up of supervisory staff, said it would consider the offers from AngloGold and South Deep.

Tim Kruger, Uasa’s spokesman, told Reuters on Monday his union would decide on Friday if it would join the strike or not. Uasa had no immediate comment on Tuesday.

South Africa accounts for about 15 percent of global gold output. Statistics South Africa said on Monday the mining sector contributed 6.6 percent to the nation’s gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2005.

The failed miners’ wage talks are symptomatic of wider discontent in South Africa, recently hit by a wave of work stoppages by municipal, supermarket and national airline staff, Reuters reports.