Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Changing Labor Landscape in the Developing World: Part 3

South Africa: At the Precipice of Bedlam

In what is the most heightened and well-publicized labor tension of recent months, South Africa’s mining sector is undergoing some of the worst strikes in recent memory. Somewhat reminiscent of the West Virginia Coal Wars which occurred between 1921 and 1922, South Africa is undergoing a rapid and violent transition to organized labor, almost certainly a byproduct of the immense success the mining industry has had recently. While it is unclear when the turmoil will be resolved, South Africa remains a very clear and very present example of the change in developing nations that will likely persist for decades to come – workers around the globe are refusing to continue accepting the meager wages and abysmal lives they work so hard for. As multi-national corporations continue to enjoy record profits, workers will become more and more cognizant of the disparity between themselves and their employers, and more often than not, the result will be widespread violence.

The problems in South Africa stretch back to August, when police made worldwide news by firing upon striking workers at a mine, killing 34 of them. The result was outrage not only nationally, but throughout much of the world, further exacerbated days later with news that the police would not have charges pressed against them. Since then, workers have continued to strike, although it has been unsuccessful in achieving much as of yet. The New York Times estimates that approximately 75,000 miners in South Africa are currently on strike, which is just about one quarter of the total mining population.
Although still not willing to budge on the bargaining table, Anglo American Platinum, the enormous platinum mine in the spotlight because of the strikes, has admitted that it is losing profits rapidly. In an attempt to quell this, they laid off 12,000 striking miners last Friday as a warning to the remaining miners on strike. The stakes are high, and desperation is beginning to show. Moody’s recently downgraded South African bonds, signaling that the strikes are hurting not just the mining companies, but the South African economy as a whole. Realistic compromises need to be discussed and resolutions made before the situation continues to spiral out of control.

In a country still smarting from the Apartheid era only a few decades ago, the strikes highlight racial tensions, not just labor ones. Having the company “Anglo American Platinum” laying off and repressing predominantly black workers signifies that race issues are still highly prevalent in the country; this will undoubtedly prolong the strikes and delay complicate negotiations to be had. Surprisingly, the South African government has yet to apply pressure to Anglo American Platinum, although I am sure that will not last much longer. The mining industry needs to restructure itself and re-evaluate its employer-employee relationships in order to better accommodate at least some of the strikers demands, or else the South African economy will surely crash and burn and the country will be thrust back into a position of instability that many of their neighbors currently suffer from.


Tensions between employers and workers will never go away. They serve as an indicator that capitalism is functioning, albeit perhaps not the way it should be, and striking a balance between the needs of workers and the wants of owners will remain about as feasibly struck as a college senior’s balance between work and play (excluding, of course, my co-author Zach). However, there are stages of labor tensions, and right now much of the world is struggling to battle through the tensions that America, the U.K., and the rest of the developed world struggled with over a century ago. In a highly globalized world, the developed world must empathize, and support these developing countries. While union disputes continue to plague the United States, the average quality of workers in this country is very good, something that was certainly not achieved overnight. Recognizing this and exerting our economic might by imposing certain trade regulations, and reducing or increasing aid is paramount in helping improve worker’s rights across the globe and decreasing production instability and potentially enormous trade quagmires. Many may disagree with me on this but ultimately organized labor is a good thing, for employers, employees, consumers, and everyone else involved in the production and consumption of goods and materials. What we need to focus on right now is helping our friends in the developing world see that as well.

A recent strike in the United States

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