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Union may escalate gold strike to Sibanye's platinum operations

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Union may escalate gold strike to Sibanye's platinum operations

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union plans to seek approval to expand its gold strike in South Africa to Sibanye Gold Ltd.'s platinum group metals mines, said union President Joseph Mathunjwa.

"We will start as soon as yesterday," Mathunjwa said in response to a question about whether it had begun the process to expand the strike at Sibanye's gold operations.

Mathunjwa, speaking with S&P Global Market Intelligence over the phone on Jan. 3, said the union, or AMCU, was consulting members about a "solidarity" strike at Sibanye platinum group metals operations and would continue to do so once most of them return to work around Jan. 5 after recent holidays.

The AMCU will need to apply to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, or CCMA, for approval of the expanded strike, Mathunjwa said, in a process that takes about seven days. He said the AMCU represents the majority of Sibanye's platinum sector workers.

Sibanye is a key player in platinum group metals mining and has guided for 2018 production in the range of 1.1 million ounces to 1.15 million ounces of 4E PGM, comprising platinum, palladium, rhodium and gold at its South African mines focused on the metals.

At its gold operations in South Africa, the company anticipates 2018 production of between 1.17 million ounces and 1.21 million ounces of gold.

Sibanye could not be reached for comment late in the day Jan. 3.

Court order

The move to escalate the strike comes as Sibanye and the AMCU continue to fight over the legality of the AMCU's walk-off in the gold sector. Sibanye has said it has the support of enough union members to enforce a wage agreement on AMCU workers. But the union has contested Sibanye's count of member rolls.

In late December 2018, a judge ordered the CCMA to oversee verification of the union numbers and report back by Jan. 7, but that process may have hit a snag.

Mathunjwa said the AMCU met Jan. 3 with Sibanye to work out issues related to verification but that they had not reached an agreement over "terms of reference" related to the court order. He said the CCMA would need court guidance on how to move forward with the process.

The strike at Sibanye's gold operations began Nov. 21, 2018, with both sides vowing not to back down. Sibanye has said it would not sweeten the wage agreement it reached with other unions at its gold operations, while the AMCU has said the miner would have to come back to the table and compromise.

Mathunjwa reiterated that view during the interview and, in answer to a question about how long the AMCU would strike, he noted the union picketed for about five months in the platinum sector back in 2014.

Sibanye shareholders may also soon hear from the union directly. Mathunjwa said the AMCU was making arrangements to meet with shareholders in Europe to make the case that Sibanye can afford to meet its demands.

"The gold sector is very oppressive," he said. "We are not apologetic."

Sibanye has strongly disagreed with that view, noting wages in the sector can be relatively high for South Africa and that they have been on the rise in recent decades, beating the rate of inflation.