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Pay us a living wage, say South Africa's miners
Agnieszka Flak

July 29, 2011
View the Original Article

EMALAHLENI, South Africa, July 29 (Reuters) - After 38 years working for one of South Africa's biggest coal miners, plant attendant Joseph still struggles to make ends meet.

"I still get only 3,700 rand ($550) a month. How am I supposed to survive with that? And my family?," he said angrily at a rally outside a colliery in the country's main coal-producing region north-east of Johannesburg.

Miners in South Africa's biggest industry, many of whom have worked for the same company for decades, say their pay has not kept up with fast-rising food, fuel and electricity prices.

Adding insult to injury, in their eyes, their raises pale in comparison to that of executives at the top 40 blue-chip companies, who were paid on average 23 percent more last year.

Miners' wages have increased by nearly 30 percent over the last three years, but that does not mean much for those at the bottom rung who make between 3,000 and 4,000 rand a month.

"If my children want shoes, I can't buy them for them. That's not fair! And I'm an old man. What will they get when I'm gone? Nothing," Joseph, 55, said.

Tens of thousands of South African coal miners walked off the job on Monday to demand a 14 percent pay rise and a housing allowance which would allow them to leave scrappy shanty towns and squatter camps. Employers have offered 6 to 8.5 percent.

"After 16 years at the mine I am still sitting in the shacks," said 49-year-old Sipho.

Appealing to one of the local banks for housing loans has been futile, he added.

"No matter where you go, you don't qualify. We want housing, we want better pay," he said, waving a stick at an Anglo American management building.


Seventeen years after apartheid ended, miners feel little has changed to improve their lives and many live in debt.

"Things are getting more expensive and I have to borrow money every month to pay for food. We hope and hope that things will change and get better, but they don't," said 42-year-old Mary, a single mom working as a plant assistant.

Some get into their companies' training schemes which allow them to get better jobs and obtain useful skills along the way.

Sixty-three-year-old Chris Komape said he started at an Xstrata mine as a hostel clerk some 26 years ago, earning 500 rand a month. Now a mechanic, his basic salary is 13,000 rand, but still not enough to support his wife and kids.

"Managers are getting millions and we get peanuts," he said.

Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers said the median salaries of executive directors of the top 40 companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange rose 23 percent to 4.8 million rand last year, while their short-term incentives rose by 58 percent to 3.8 million rand.

South Africa's Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, stood at 0.67 in 2008, according to government figures, one of the highest in the world, and has worsened since white minority rule ended in 1994.

The figure would be zero if wealth were perfectly shared out and 1.0 if it were in one person's hands. Brazil, like South Africa a member of the emerging markets BRICS group of countries, had a Gini coefficient of 0.54 in 2009.

South Africa's annual "strike season" is in full swing, with unions demanding 10-20 percent pay rises. The strikes have also hit chemicals, fuel, gold and diamond mining.

The demands are well above the official inflation rate of 5 percent but unions argue the rate does not fully reflect the impact of rising food and fuel prices.

Employers say they cannot afford the above-inflation increases at a time when they are also struggling with a strong rand currency and steep hikes in electricity costs, and economists say higher wages could hurt South Africa's competitiveness and the long-term economic outlook.

But many companies also now view above-inflation settlements as a necessary cost of doing business in South Africa and have slashed jobs to make up for the higher personnel costs.

Miners do not get paid while on strike, but are vowing to strike until their demands are met.

"I don't have much to lose," said Sandile, 52. ($1 = 6.704 South African Rand)

(Editing by Marius Bosch and Sonya Hepinstall)