By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Labour brought a machete to a gunfight with management in South Africa's platinum belt. Small wonder it looks set to lose.
South Africa's big platinum strike has highlighted issues ranging from cash reserves to changing market dynamics that have curtailed labour's ability to influence prices. The result has been to expose the weakness of the country's miners in any confrontation with producers.
As it marked its 13th week, the showdown took a dramatic turn on Thursday when marathon wage talks collapsed. The world's three top producers now say they will take their latest offer directly to employees. [ID:nL6N0NG3DP]
They are effectively forcing the hand of the hard-line Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. The AMCU's leaders were reluctant to take the latest offer back to their members - probably because they feared the rank and file would accept it after three months with no pay.
A typical South African mine worker has eight dependants and often two families, one in his home village and the other near the shafts. That means many of them are now near the breaking point, especially as domestic inflation accelerates.
The companies - Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin - are in a far more robust financial situation, even though they have lost close to 15 billion rand ($1.4 billion) to date in revenue and counting. Lonmin, for example, had a net cash position of $201 million at the end of its 2013 financial year.
The 70,000 striking workers have lost 6.5 billion rand in wages so far, according to the industry. Unlike the companies, few will have the savings to weather this storm.
A Reuters analysis last year of the pay package for entry-level mine workers found that it would meet the basic needs of a family of four, but not much else. Many extended households are twice that size or more. [ID:nL5N0F503O]
Analysts say the companies may be hurt but can survive and even emerge leaner and more profitable from the wreckage of the strike. A painful restructuring and job cuts are likely, with the focus on Amplest's Rustenburg operations. [ID:nL6N0MZ3YA]
If the Amplest share price is anything to go by, investors agree. It has risen 17 percent since the start of the strike.
“Investors know that if Amplest shuts down everything and just keeps the northern rim of their operations going, they will probably pay a bigger dividend than keeping everything going," said Peter Major, a fund manager at Cadiz Corporate Solutions.
Amplest and parent Anglo American have also signaled that they see the future of platinum in more mechanized operations.
That is another advantage capital holds. Much of the mining labour force in South Africa is semi-literate and drawn from subsistence farming backgrounds. Lack of skills not only constrains productivity but also gives workers few bargaining chips if it comes to a choice between them and technology.
AMCU and its charismatic president Joseph Mathunjwa also made a fatal miscalculation when they bet the union could wring concessions by driving up the metal's price.
That is a double-edged sword. A higher price can cushion producers if they have unaffected operations. But it can make their customers edgy and set off a scramble for alternatives, while allowing labour to flex its muscles.
A higher price was one of the outcomes AMCU expected when it lined Amplats, Implats and Lonmin up for a simultaneous strike unprecedented in scale. It hit 40 percent of global production of the precious metal used for emissions-capping catalytic converters in automobiles.
But spot platinum is around 2.5 percent cheaper than it was on the eve of the strike, fetching around $1,410.00 an ounce. Mathunjwa has openly speculated about capitalist efforts to suppress the price.
"So if there is little platinum, why doesn't the price go up? I told you that they are manipulating it, so that it seems like they are not feeling the pinch of the strike," he thundered at one recent rally.
Wider forces are at work, though perhaps not in a way that Mathunjwa envisions. They explain why the disruption is not raising platinum's price the way it would for other commodities, such as copper or nickel.
For one thing, above-ground stocks seem to be adequate to meet demand, which is remains sluggish in key markets such as Europe.
This is partly because the industry learned its lessons from 2012, when AMCU burst on the platinum belt in a wave of violent, wildcat strikes that hurt production badly that year.
Platinum investment has become an important element of the overall market balance. In 2007, investment stood at 170,000 ounces, equivalent to 2 percent of total gross demand. By 2013, it had grown to 765,000 ounces, or 9 percent of demand.
One of the biggest factors driving demand growth last year was the introduction of the NewPlat exchange-traded fund in South Africa. Within four months of its listing in April 2013, it had become the largest fund of its kind in the world, mopping up nearly a million ounces of metal last year.
During 2012's violence, 34 striking AMCU miners were shot dead by police outside of Lonmin's Marikana mine. In their confrontation with wider forces, they remain out-gunned.
($1 = 10.6327 South African Rand)
(Additional reporting by Zandi Shabalala in Johannesburg and Jan Harvey in London; Editing by Larry King)