Two weeks ago we showed dramatic footage as striking miners at Lonmin’s Marikana South Africa platinum mine were fired upon by local the local cops, killing dozens of protesters in the process. Aside from the implications of what happens when the establishment loses control and desperate workers revolt with complete disregard for their own safety, the strike has crippled the world’s third largest platinum maker, and has cut daily production of the precious metal by 2,500 ounces. Since then the Lonmin situation has remained critical, with just 6% of the South African company’s workers turning up for work last week. In the meantime, the strike bug has gone airborne, and has now impacted Gold Fields, the world’s fourth largest gold mine. From the FT: “Some 12,000 workers at a gold mine operated by Gold Fields have gone on strike, in the latest industrial strife to hit South Africa’s mining industry. Sven Lunsche, a spokesman for Gold Fields, said the wild-cat strike was not directly related to the crisis at the Marikana platinum complex, where 44 people have been killed in violence after rock drill operators downed their tools to demand higher wages on August 10. But he acknowledged that “the atmosphere in the mining industry is very volatile at the moment and this may have had an indirect impact on the situation”. The bottom line: “The strike was costing the company 1,660 gold ounces of production a day, Mr Lunsche said.” In other words in addition to the fear of a resumption in money printing by central bankers, the gold price will now have to deal with the added fear that supply disruptions just may hamper China’s stealthy hording attempts to become the world’s biggest holder of physical gold, or at least at sub $2000/oz prices.
Furthermore, it appears that where the striking miners of Lonmin and Gold Fields have boldly gone, many more local unionized workers are set to go as well, in the process shuttering the biggest industry in the Southern African nation:
The unrest at Marikana mines operated by Lonmin, the London-listed company, has been complicated by a dispute between the NUM and a rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, a newer body that has been making inroads into the platinum sector.
Amcu has no representation at the Gold Fields mine, although it has previously attempted to recruit members there. Industry officials have said the fact that gold producers use collective bargaining to negotiate with unions should reduce the risk of the kind of dispute afflicting Lonmin spreading to that sector.
But the Marikana crisis has triggered nervousness throughout the industry, while also putting focus on what appears to be growing dissatisfaction among workers with the NUM, which has been the dominant union in mining for three decades.
Lesiba Seshoka, a spokesman for the NUM, said the union had sent a team to the KDC mine to see what the workers’ concerns were. But he said suggestions that it was related to an internal union dispute at the mine were “not true”.
As a reminder, South Africa is the world’s third largest producer of gold in the world (although the output has been steadily declining year after year), and the broader mining accounts for just under 20% of the country’s GDP.
Should the local workers grasp that they have the bulk of the leverage in this critical industry, it is unknown how far the metal production shutdown will extend, and how far the price of gold will rise as fears of a persistent supply contraction, coupled with once again increasing demand by both retail and central banks, spread.