Thousands of miners in South Africa returned to work on Thursday, just hours before a deadline to end their strike or face dismissal, but embattled gold producers were still struggling to break the back of a months-long labor revolt.
Around 2,800 striking miners at a Gold Fields facility near Johannesburg turned up for their shift early Thursday, the firm said, but thousands more looked set to continue their strike.
Gold Fields management has given 15,000 miners until 2:00 p.m. local time (1200 GMT) to return to the mines or face the sack.
“I heard about the 2:00 p.m. deadline on the news. But we don’t care about that, what we care about is money,” said Kipusa, a 32-year-old Gold Fields worker who vowed to continue his strike.
Tens of thousands of workers across South Africa’s mining sector have been involved in a spate of illegal strikes over pay and conditions.
The stayaways have crippled production in a sector that fuels 19 percent of South Africa’s economy, prompting pressure from employers, government and even the workers’ own unions.
President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday called on the strikers “to return to work as soon as possible and for production in the mining industry to be normalized.”
The National Union of Mineworkers, which for decades has been tasked with negotiating contracts with mine bosses, called for negotiators to be allowed to “engage the employers on the issues.”
Spurred on by pay rises granted by platinum giant Lonmin after 46 people were killed during a violent strike at its Marikana mine, strikers have dismissed deals between established unions and management, accusing them of being in league.
Last week gold miners flatly rejected a deal brokered between the National Union of Mineworkers and the Chamber of Mines, raising the spectre of destabilising mass dismissals.
Sackings of thousands of people are not unheard of in South Africa. But they are often part of a tough negotiating gambit rather than a final coup to striking workers, who often end up getting their jobs back under a subsequent deal.
Last week the world’s top platinum producer, Anglo American Platinum, sacked 12,000 workers in one day after they failed to meet a deadline to return to work.
On Thursday the firm said operations had been reduced to only “essential services” since the dismissal.
“It remains our stated position that we will not reinstate the 12,000 dismissed Rustenburg employees,” the firm said, adding it was at the same time “willing to discuss their status.”
According to independent labor analyst Daniel Silke, mine owners are struggling to reconcile the short-term need to keep wage bills low and a longer-term need to dramatically restructure operations.
“There’s a short-term strategic attempt to reverse Marikana but there is a medium- to long-term attempt to restructure labor in South Africa to reflect the changing global dynamics of the mining industry,” he said.
Long dependent on masses of cheap labor, South Africa’s mines have struggled against international competitors with lower wage and extraction costs.