I have immense respect for anyone brave enough to work in a mine. During a short stint with a mining company, I went underground a few times, and hated every second. Really hated it.
However, there are people willing to do this work, day after day, shitty shift after shift. They deserve our respect.
But should they be paid more?
It is such a tough one. There are so many cushy jobs, from executive to politician, to trade unionist, to journalist - where the conditions are far better, the rewards far higher, and there is far, far less danger, discomfort, disease.
The problem is that mines are there to make money. If they don’t they will close. As they have been doing, and will continue to do.
Which is what is happening at Impala Platinum (Implats). They are closing unprofitable shafts, dismissing 13 000 employees. Given the number of people who are dependent on the salary of each miner, we are talking of an impact on hundreds of thousands of people, as there are not many alternative jobs.
For mining minister Gwede Mantashe, this is “unethical and reckless”. Given his constituency, he was hardly likely to welcome all those lost jobs.
However badly-paid miners may be, their wages are pushed up by aggressive Unions. And once a wage bill has risen too high, it may mean that it is no longer profitable to mine.
Of course, there are other sectors where the same is true. Few economists would suggest Eskom is overmanned, and that its wages are too low. If current demands are met for salary rises way above inflation, this will do nothing to help the finances of a seriously overmanned (and overwomanned) business.
And then there is the Post Office. And the Gautrain. And we can go on and on……. And on again.
There is no easy solution to the age-old conflict of workers seeking more comfortable lives and better pay, against the need for employers from both the private and the public sectors to make a profit, to keep the business going, to satisfy other stakeholders.
Of course, it is reasonable to wish that when there are wage battles, the Unions are given less ammunition in terms of excessive executive greed, obscene pay and perks, share options which will fund a lifetime of obese luxury.
Meanwhile, there needs to be better communication to, and education of, the workforce on the basics of a business. An understanding that if a business is in trouble, that trouble will have direct, dire, consequences for employees who become unaffordable.
Yes, they deserve better wages, but since when did justice and economics occupy the same territory? If there is no profit from which to pay those wages, there will be consequences. Just look at Implats.
All of this seems logical, if a little cruel, inhuman, uncaring.
However, it is more cruel for miners to be led to believe - or for any other workers to believe - there is some pot of gold from which they can be paid better and better, regardless of economic reality.
For trade union leaders, or well-fed mining ministers, to pretend otherwise is deceitful.
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