South Africa miners union strike takes off
By James Macharia
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's biggest miners' union launched a one-day national strike on Tuesday to protest against deaths in the country's mines, disrupting operations across the world's top producer of platinum and gold.
Almost a quarter of a million union members were set to down tools in the first industry-wide strike on safety, as the death toll in some of the world's deepest mines mounted to around 200 from 199 last year and 202 in 2005, mostly due to rockfalls and explosions.
"The strike started at midnight and we plan a protest march for workers later," Lesiba Seshoka, the National Union of Mineworkers' (NUM) spokesman told Reuters.
Thousands of mineworkers, some clad in their mining gear of boots, overalls and helmets sang and danced at a square in downtown Johannesburg.
They waved shovels and placards saying "No More!," "Mine Safety is a Human Right" and "Pay us a Living Wage," as others flooded city streets from buses countrywide.
Lesiba said the workers would march on the Chamber of Mines offices a few streets away, to deliver a protest memorandum, while others would hold protest actions countrywide, to put pressure on the mining industry to improve safety standards.
Mining companies and analysts have forecast huge output losses across the sector as mines grind to a halt in the world's top source of gold, platinum, vanadium and key producer of coal, diamonds, iron ore, chromium, manganese, nickel and uranium.
Analysts saw metal prices jumping on supply jitters.
Platinum rose to its highest level in a week on supply concerns ahead of the strike. Cash platinum firmed to $1,461/1,466 an ounce, from $1,455/1,459 late in New York. It earlier rose as high as $1,462.50, its highest since November 27.
Shares in Anglo American, which has interests in platinum, gold and coal fell 3.11 percent to 439.99 rand, sending the Top-40 index down 0.95 percent by 0911 GMT.
AngloGold Ashanti, the country's top gold producer and the world's number-three producer, said it would not produce any gold on the day, saying even those workers that showed up would be trained on safety issues rather than mine gold.
"It ranges from full absence to partial absence from mine to mine, but in total it's a substantial absence," spokesman Steve Lenahan said. "But even for those who turn up, it will be a day of safety training, we are not requiring them to work."
The company could not give a daily production breakdown but said its South African operations produced 618,000 ounces of gold in the quarter to end-September.
Some 900 kg of gold (28,935 ounces) and about 590 kg (18,969 ounces) in platinum output could be lost, an analyst said.
Anglo Platinum, the world's biggest platinum producer, which accounts for 40 percent of world supplies said it was too early to assess tell the strike's impact.
"The picture will become clearer later this afternoon, we are still assessing the situation," Simon Tebele, a spokesman at Angloplat, which is majority-owned by Anglo American Plc said. He couldn't immediately say how many NUM workers the firm employs out of its total workforce.
Angloplat said on Monday it had shut the 500-ounce-a-day Boschfontein shaft after a worker died in a Friday accident.
Gold producer Gold Fields said some two thirds of its workers at its four mines did not turn up at work.
"The largest stay away is at the Kloof mine where the absence was around 76 percent," spokesman Andrew Davidson said.
Gold Fields, which has forecast that it could lose some 200 kg of gold during the stoppage, said its Kloof mine, which was partially shut by authorities on Monday after a worker died in a weekend accident, had the lowest turnout. Rival Harmony Gold was also hit, but could not yet say by how much.
"Production will be definitely negatively affected but we will know the impact later in the day," spokeswoman Amelia Soares said.
BHP Billiton, the biggest exporter of coal from South Africa, said it was awaiting feedback on the impact, while second-ranked Anglo Coal, a unit of Anglo, had 65 percent absenteeism at its coal mines, spokesman Pranill Ramchander said. Xstrata, diversified coal and base metals producer Exxaro
and Kumba, Africa's top iron ore producer also expect output disruptions.
(Additional reporting by John Mkhize; editing by Michael Roddy)