MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Where diamonds are a worker's worst enemy

Published by MAC on 2008-08-19

Striking miners at Helam live in squalid conditions

By Wiseman Khuzwayo, Business Report

Johannesburg - Workers at the Helam diamond mine, in the North West, live in appaling conditions. The hostels are filthy and the grounds stink of raw sewage. In short, the place can be described as unfit for human habitation.

The miners are on a strike that entered its fourth week on Friday. The workforce of 700 is demanding higher wages, more safety measures and better living conditions.

The mine, situated in the Swartruggens district, is owned by Petra Diamonds. The London-listed mining junior has five other diamond mines in South Africa: Cullinan, Koffiefontein, Kimberley Underground, Sedibeng and Star.

Petra is South Africa's second largest diamond producer after De Beers, the world's biggest diamond company.

According to Lesiba Seshoke, a spokesperson for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the union had made it clear to management that the strike would go on indefinitely.

Seshoke said workers at the mine were currently being paid R1 500 a month across the board. Both surface and underground workers were paid the same, which was not the norm with other mining houses.

The union wanted underground workers to be paid R2 000 and those on the surface to receive R1 800 a month.

Sheridan Rogers, a spokesperson for Petra, said the company was offering a wage increase that was above the inflation rate, but she refused to give a percentage.

She did, however, concede that the figure would not take the wages of Helam workers up to the national average.

The average is R2 500 for underground miners and R 2 300 for workers on the surface

Rogers said on Tuesday: "We are very close to settling. We will see a speedy result."

Seshoke said of the Petra offer: "We are looking for no percentages while management is talking of a percentage. We can look at that in the coming years."

He said the mine had not been unionised for many years and it was only last year that the NUM had been allowed to organise there.

He took issue with a claim by Rogers that Petra had always had good relations with its workforce.

"How can you say that there are good labour relations? It is clear that this is slavery," said Seshoke.

He said he could not comment on safety conditions at the mine because the NUM had not been organising for a sufficient time.

However, Rogers claimed that Helam had a good track record on safety.

She said: "We have had 3 500 fatality free shifts. We have had only two plant accidents in the last four years."

Helam's hostels have been in existence since the establishment of the mine in 1932, and are now decrepit.

The workers sleep in beds with worn-out mattresses, loose electric cables are found in many areas and open drains and sewage are common on the premises, giving out a sickening stench.

The bare concrete floors of the sleeping areas are no different than the paths outside.

There is only one block of toilets, forcing workers to urinate next to the showers.

Mielie meal destined for the kitchen is stored in a filthy dungeon. Two drain manholes are situated right in front of the kitchen, covered by flimsy steel lids.

Rogers said: "We have a plan in place to improve the hostel conditions, including a programme to upgrade them.

"Natural attrition will also help reduce the number of residents."

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