Jobs and mechanisation not necessarily mutually exclusive

The mechanisation of South African mines, particularly in the gold and platinum sectors, is not so much a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’. Previously, opinion seemed radically divided, with proponents championing increased productivity and detractors warning against unprecedented labour unrest. However, the five-month wage strike in the platinum belt tipped the scales in favour of mechanising.

But this will not be easy (Read this article for more on why the path to mechanisation is not an easy one). The challenge for South Africa, is to make the transition without a repeat of uprisings that almost crippled the economy and the best way to do that seems to be for labour to be consulted.

Jobs and mechanisation

Speaking at the Joburg Indaba last week, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) chairperson, Valli Moosa said the mining industry had to change drastically, or else.

“Workers would not have gone on a five-month strike, without pay, unless they wanted to send us a very strong message. The only conclusion we can come to is that the system does not work…and that our staff, workers, and society in general, want to see a fundamental change within the mining industry,” he said, adding that anything short of that would be “not be correct”.

Valli’s solution is not to view mechanisation as a silver bullet that will resolve all mining problems, but rather as an important phase of the overall modernisation of the industry. It will not only improve productivity within the sector, but also lead to a move away from “back-breaking low-wage, low-skill jobs” currently ubiquitous in mining.

Another phase of that process, should be to include workers in the decision-making process as shareholders of the company, who would therefore have to merge their own interests with those of the company and would have to understand that profitability is dependent on mechanising.

Dr Declan Vogt, the director of the Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems (CMMS) at Wits, says mechanisation, in the long run, will lead to a change in the nature of jobs as opposed to the loss of jobs. As industries evolve, it is the skills that are required that change, but not the number of people required to have them.

“The coal industry mechanised in the 80s and … is bigger and employs more people now than it did prior to mechanisation, because the industry was able to grow,” he said.

Jobs and mechanisation

“It is the unions, the miners and government that will have to come together to grow the skills base and ensure the continued employment of mine labourers.… Skills are going to be key to this whole (mechanisation) thing, right from operations to mine management. I think we definitely have a shortage of skills right now, but if there a plenty of organisations (like the CMMS) that can provide the training, it’s not a game stopper.”

Even unions are open to the notion of mechanisation, albeit cautiously. Frans Baleni, the General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, says the union supports mechanisation if it is a decision that arises from a consensus between management and labour.

“Because then you can agree on issues of training (workers to use machinery); up-skilling in terms of maintenance and servicing of the equipment; and also the local manufacturing of that equipment because then you create a stream of jobs and employment opportunities,” he said.

But when its sole purpose is to replace labour, Baleni says, the union is strongly opposed to mechanisation, citing a tendency for companies to impose it as a ‘fight-back mechanism’ after strike actions.