The South African mining sector’s migrant labour system received very little official attention after apartheid ended, despite being one of the greatest emblems of the racist economic order.
After 2012’s strike wave, and ultimately the Marikana shootings, however, the system is drawing more and more new critics, including the most important government role players.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu and Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel have all blamed the ‘unreformed’ migration system, at least in part, for the unrest that exploded in Rustenburg and beyond.
More precisely, the migrant labour system is blamed for creating the living conditions and financial hardship responsible for 2012’s unrest: cash-strapped workers supporting two parallel families, ballooning shanty towns, rapacious ‘mashonisas’ (loan sharks) and the general decline in social cohesion near mines.
‘It’s an oversimplification to say Marikana was caused by one thing. People like simple answers to complicated questions,’ says Graham Herbert, MD of Teba, the organisation that has been at the heart of the mining industry’s migrant system for more than a century as the Chamber of Mines’ labour recruitment bureau.
‘You have various people proclaiming their opinion of the migrant labour system. When someone says it’s [social conditions near mines] due to the system, so just stop it, that’s a highly loaded thing to say.’
Rural regions in South Africa and 68 000 foreign mineworkers still depend on migration, says Herbert.
Teba has been independently owned since 2005 and still recruits new workers and administers the movement of the migrant labour force, while branching out into a number of services for mineworkers in the rural labour recruitment areas.
The century-old system has a longer charge sheet than the recent criticism. It was one of the pillars of apartheid era ‘influx control’, keeping South Africa ‘white’ by continuously repatriating black mineworkers to their so-called homelands.
The worker-organised strike at Impala Platinum in January 2012 that sparked the larger strike wave ‘started as a migrant-driven strike’, says Gavin Hartford, CEO of the Esop Shop and a well-known consultant on labour matters in the local industry.
It spread to draw in communities around the mines, especially dependents who had a direct stake in the wage demands being made, he says.
The economic logic of migrancy rested on the idea that workers are effectively subsidised by their rural families
The problem is not migration itself, but a new pressure on migrants due to changes in the accommodation system and an associated debt spiral, says Hartford.
He says the only major change in how migrancy functions since apartheid has been the housing system.
‘Because the hostels were the most visual symbol of degradation, it was the first thing labour and the industry took on. The number of dependents has grown, as did personal debt levels as workers sought credit to fund new accommodation expenses.’
Although many mines have upgraded hostels and built family housing as prescribed by the Mining Charter of 2002 many, especially in the platinum industry, solved the problem with living out allowances, which now constitute a significant part of many miners’ remuneration. When the living out allowance was instituted, no one asked where mineworkers would stay, says Hartford.
The economic logic of migrancy, from the beginning of the system, rested on the idea that workers would be effectively subsidised by their rural families, who still planted crops, kept cattle and maintained a peasant subsistence kind of economy, he says. This justified the low wages.
Although this ‘subsidy’ is now far less than a century ago, Hartford thinks it still exists to a significant degree. On the other hand, he says miners will tell you the cost of transport, food and rent add up to at least R2 000 a month, which uses the entire living out allowance.
The remittances going back home are getting less and less, leaving a larger gap. But for all its historical baggage and evident dysfunction in recent years, the migrant labour system is here to stay.
It lives on without the overt goal of racist social engineering, wage subsidisation or the institutional backing that created it. Its longevity is due to the structural relationship between mines and specific rural communities that have been established. It has created large rural reservoirs of mining skills constantly replenished when mines close in the ailing gold sector – and a deeply engrained ‘hard rock mining culture’.
‘What we’ll see in South Africa will be dictated by where the skills are,’ says Kevin Cotterell, head of new business at Teba.
‘Mines do say “We don’t want local labour, they have no mining culture”,’ he says.
The embedded mining culture is no small thing. Even with pressure to employ more locals around mines, there is an acceptance that some jobs ‘belong’ to migrants, says Hartford. In reality the locals also won’t do those jobs.
‘From time immemorial, job functions have been de facto assigned to particular areas,’ says Hartford. Rock drill operators (RDOs) are by and large still amaPondo from a particular part of the Eastern Cape, for example.
‘My experience is that younger guys still migrate and have a strong sentiment that home is home,’ says Hartford.
The occupations get passed on between father and son and there is a real pride in being RDOs, widely recognised as the hardest job in the local deep-level mining industry.
‘Workers will always say “if I can’t work anymore, the company must take my brother or son”. There is pressure on companies to keep recruiting from mining families.’ This practice is actually still formally part of the system as far as foreign workers are concerned.
Since 2003 the Immigration Act has curtailed the hiring of new foreign mineworkers, leaving the current pool to slowly fade away. The only foreign novices that can be recruited today are those nominated by the families of existing foreign mineworkers who die or become medically incapacitated, says Cotterell.
On average, Mozambican and Basotho miners have to receive 30% of their pay at home every year. This protects them from debt
In some ways the persistence of migrant labour reflects an underinvestment in new skills. The routine assessments of new applicants for mine work only see 30% of applicants pass, according to Teba, with the greatest hurdles being literacy and numeracy.
Recruiting a novice RDO takes weeks of paid training time. It is simply easier to turn to the migrant pool instead.
This tendency is reflected in the rising age of the mining labour force. Hartford estimates that between half and two thirds of the gold and platinum labour force is ‘elderly’ (over 45 years old). Foreign workers still on the Teba administration system are on average about 50.
Teba believes there is an answer. Its solution is actually not to diminish migrant labour, but make it more migratory.
According to Herbert, the mines should run continuously for 365 days instead of the effective 260 days currently. To accomplish this, the shift system must get radically altered so miners work only four months continuously and spend two months at home.
More workers will need to be hired and rotated so that everyone gets to spend more time at home, he says.
This will stop the aberrations of second families and all the other destructive condi-tions that flow from the predominantly male migrant mine community being isolated from their families and communities for a year at a time, says Herbert.
‘Mines need to do research. We do not believe miners want to own a home at the mine.’
Instead, he says, mines should have found a better solution to replace the hostels with livable temporary housing.
According to Herbert the cash living out allowances are a mistake. These should rather be paid directly to landlords, he says, admitting that at this point it would be impossible to take back what has become a large part of many miners’ pay.
He also supports the long-lived deferred payment system for the foreign workers Teba manages for the mines.
On average, Mozambican and Basotho miners have to receive 30% of their pay at home every year. This protects them from debt and garnishee orders, he says.
There has been underinvestment in many aspects of the migrant system, according to Teba. This includes the medical compensation and provident system, which fail to reach thousands of beneficiaries across the region because the trustees and administrators of these systems underspend on tracing services.
What is actually needed is investment and growth in migrant labour, says Hartford. ‘In the Eastern Cape the major employer is government, followed by mining. There is really no choice. The issue is not to throw it out. You want mine revenue going to the rural areas. The question is how to do it better.’
He believes one fundamental brake on reform has been that the current system has served the mines well. The shorter migration cycle proposed by Teba, combined with full year operations, could however ‘pay for itself’, he says.
‘I think we can do better than just making it cost neutral, quite apart from making it more humane.’ Stakeholders should be coming together and working out what the most appropriate labour supply strategy will be, considering the maturity of the gold mines, the expected life of the platinum mines and the objectives of the National Development Plan, he says.
‘If you can agree on that, that will drive your recruitment strategy.’