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South African mine union, Implats in talks to avoid strike

South Africa's civil servants march at the Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa, Aug. 10, 2010. )

Themba Hadabe/AP

A powerful South African mine workers' union will meet negotiators at Impala Platinum on Friday in an attempt to avert a wage strike that could hurt the world's second-largest producer of the precious metal.

The talks are the latest in a wave of disputes that have already disrupted operations in the mining and fuel sectors and threaten to curb growth in an already stagnant economy.

The mid-year negotiating session known as "strike season" is expected to intensify next week when at least 145,000 municipal workers plan to walk off the job on Monday, disrupting garbage collection and other services in major cities.

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The strikes have cost gold miners around $190-million in lost output, curtailed the already struggling manufacturing sector and could trim third-quarter economic growth by up to 0.6 per cent, analysts said.

"Anything is possible at this meeting," said Eddie Majadibodu, the National Union of Mineworkers' chief negotiator at Implats. "Management does not want a strike and it's up to them to decide what they will offer today, but on the other hand our members cannot wait longer, so today's meeting will be quite decisive," he said.

The NUM, seeking a 14-per-cent raise for its 26,000 workers at Implats, has been discussing a revised, yet undisclosed offer from Implats. It has rejected the company's previous offer of between 7.5 and 8 per cent.

Implats and its bigger rival, Anglo American Platinum, account for two-thirds of global platinum supply and any prolonged strike could push prices higher. Wage talks with Amplats are scheduled for next week.

The NUM has already reached wage raise deals of 7.5 per cent to 10 per cent for its workers in the gold and coal sectors, with the figures expected to be benchmarks in the platinum talks.

Unions say employers should pass along the benefits of high precious metal prices to workers facing increasing food and fuel bills.

Employers have responded to increasing wage bills by shedding jobs, and with a sluggish economic recovery, the outlook for a labour market suffering from 25 per cent unemployment is not encouraging.

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Economists have cautioned that wage settlements well above the current 5 per cent inflation rate erode South Africa's global competitiveness by driving up the cost of a labour force already more expensive and less efficient than those in rival emerging economies.

A typical South African factory worker earns about six times more than the average Chinese factory worker.

The ruling African National Congress, in a governing alliance with labour, does not want to antagonize a group that has supplied it with millions of votes by putting pressure on unions to seek more modest deals.

The NUM is also in talks to avert industrial action at state-owned utility Eskom, which supplies more than 95 per cent of South Africa's power.

The union said on Friday it had referred the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and expects the authority to schedule mediated talks for next week.

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