How much do rock drillers at Lonmin really earn?

The media fails to verify a critical fact about the Marikana strike

In the writing and commentary on last week's murderous strike - and the subsequent police massacre - at Lonmin's Marikana mine a certain fact has been endlessly repeated. This is that the Rock Drill Operators (RDOs) who are, apparently, at the core of the strike were only paid R4 000 per month by Lonmin, and were demanding R12 500.

This claim seems to have been first made in a news agency report on Tuesday August 14. On that day Sapa reported that "Striking miners vowed on Tuesday to stay at the top of a hill in Wonderkop, near Lonmin's Marikana mine, until their pay was pushed up to R12,500 a month. They claimed they were being paid R4000 per month, and those living outside the hostel R5000."

The source for this report appeared to be one Alfred Makhaya from the Eastern Cape. He told Sapa "He had been working for Lonmin for over eight years and was being paid R4000 a month. He was forced to leave the hostel to rent a room so he could have an extra R1000."

At some point in the next few days this claim by one - or more - of the strikers seems to have hardened into accepted fact through the sheer weight of repetition. On Friday, August 17, Justice Malala wrote in a comment piece for the Guardian (UK) that "AMCU dangled a fat piece of fruit in front of the workers' eyes: rock drillers (who are the core of this strike and do the hardest work underground) earning R4,000 a month were promised R12,500 a month."

On Saturday (August 18 2012) the Guardian's Africa correspondent David Smith reported that the strikers "are demanding from Lonmin, whose HQ is in London, a wage increase from 4,000 rand (£300) to 12,500 rand a month." He also repeated - credulously, given the strict laws and agreements which govern such matters - the unlikely claim of one Siphiwo Gqala, 25, who "said he sometimes spends up to 14 hours a day underground but does not receive overtime pay."

On Saturday evening the Daily Maverick ran an article by Sipho Hlongwane and Greg Marinovich based, partly, on an interview with someone living in the local Wonderkop shantytown who said he was a rock drill operator. They reported, after checking his wage slip, "His basic pay for the month is R4,365.90 - add to that a R1,850 housing allowance, benefits and some bonus pay and his gross pay is around R8,124.80. After his union fees, unemployment insurance, other fund contributions and tax, his take-home pay is just over R5,000."

This reality check - that the gross pay at least of rock drill operators was twice as high as reported - seems to have passed unnoticed.

In an in depth analysis in City Press on Sunday (August 19) Lucas Ledwaba wrote that the goal of the strikers was "a monthly salary of R12 500" and that "more than 3 000 rock drillers - the men who earn just R4 000 a month digging for platinum underground for eight hours every working day" had downed their tools on the previous Friday. Reuters also repeated this claim stating: "Platinum sells for about $1,440 an ounce but a worker drilling underground at tonnes of rock face to extract it makes less than $500 a month."

On Monday David Smith repeated the claim that "the 3,000 striking rock drillers are demanding their wages be trebled from 4,000 rand (£306) a month to 12,500 rand a month. In comparison, Lonmin's chief executive Ian Farmer, who is currently seriously ill in hospital, collected pay and bonuses of £1.2m last year."

This "fact" has also underpinned British commentary on the strike and massacre. In a blog post for the Guardian Michael White wrote: "The 3,000 striking miners have been demanding a tripling of their 4,000-rand-a-month (£306) salary from Lonmin, the London-based mine owner." Meanwhile Alistar Osborne, Business Editor of the Daily Telegraph, commented: "Maybe there are queues of wannabe rock drillers, lining up for dangerous eight hour shifts with a 25kg tool right at the rock face - labouring for the princely sum of £305 a month."

It was left, not to a journalist, but to Solidarity deputy general secretary Gideon du Plessis to go and find out the actual figures. In a statement issued on Monday he reported "The adjusted total cost package of a Lonmin rock drill operator is approximately R10 500 a month, excluding bonuses." He added that "the rock drill operators and their representative union, Amcu, did not submit written demands nor declare a wage dispute, which is the norm in a process of collective bargaining."

In response to a separate query from Politicsweb Lonmin's Mark Munroe Executive Vice President of Mining, basically confirmed these amounts. He stated: "Lonmin's Rock Drill Operators earn in the region of R10,000 per month without bonus's and over R11,000 including bonus's. These levels are in line with those of our competitors and are before the wage hike of some 9% which will come into effect on 1 October 2012."

If this increase applies to the whole compensation package it would push gross earnings - with and without bonuses - to between R11 000 and R12 000 per month. The net income of rock drill operators may well be considerably less than this - after deductions - but this is the cost to company.

One has to ask why no-one in the world's media appear seem to have bothered to verify the R4 000 figure - or others they were given by disgruntled protestors - with either Lonmin or the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), both of whom would have had it at hand. Given the critical nature of this information for any analysis of the strikers demands it seems like a very basic mistake.

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