Harmony last week began issuing retrenchment notices to mineworkers, as part of a restructuring process that will see some 4 900 jobs slashed at four of the gold producer's loss-making shafts.
Harmony CEO Bernard Swanepoel said, on the sidelines of the company's results presentation yesterday for the quarter ended March 31, he does not believe the union has any legal recourse in the matter.
The gold-miner is entitled to proceed with the retrenchments, after issuing a 30-day Section 189 notice, in terms of the South African Labour Relations Act, warning labour of its intention to carry out restructuring at the affected shafts.
However, Swanepoel told Mining Weekly Online that it is understandable that the NUM would try to gain a “stay of execution” for its members, regardless of how briefly the retrenchment process is pushed back.
But, he said, should the union succeed in its court bid today, a precedent-setting judgment would have far-reaching implications for similar labour-related cases in the future.
When approached for comment, NUM deputy general-secretary Archie Palane refused to be drawn on the substance of the union's argument, other than to confirm that it would challenge the retrenchments.
“It would be premature to comment on what our argument will be,” he stated, but indicated that the union feels it has a case, despite Harmony having followed legal procedure for restructuring process.
The NUM's court action comes after it failed to stop the dismissals last week Wednesday by serving Harmony with legal papers, rather than applying for an interdict against the company as it initially intended.
Harmony earlier announced that it had reached agreements regarding the retrenchment process with two smaller trade unions, but talks between it and the NUM deadlocked.
Meanwhile, Harmony has again stressed that the retrenchments are largely due to the NUM's refusal to reinstate continuous operations (conops) at the Free State shafts, resulting in the Masimong 4, Nyala, St Helena 4 and Welkom 1 shafts having to be put on care and maintenance.
Conops were stopped in January, after the NUM pulled out of the agreement to have the mines operate around the clock, every day of the year.
Harmony has subsequently warned that, should conops not be reintroduced at the Free State shafts, more retrenchment could be expected, as the company would be forced to review staffing levels at the shafts that are currently staffed to conops levels.
The company has put the cost of the latest wave of dismissals at R122-million.
But Swanepoel yesterday said he is confident of reaching deal with the NUM about bringing back around-the-clock, seven-days-a-week operations.
“I believe that we will get conops reimplemented and no more Section 189 notices will have to be issued,” he told journalists.
Earlier in his presentation, Swanepoel stated that conops is a huge concern for the company, explaining that, had it been in place, some 400 jobs at the Bambanani shaft – where 900 dismissal notices have been issued – could have been saved.
“There are another 1 600 mineworkers in the Free State who don't have shifts,” he said, but added that the NUM has recently made positive statement about reinstating conops.
With the exception of Target, none of the Free State operations are currently on conops. However, the implementation of continuous operations outside of the Free State is progressing well, Harmony reported. Evander and Elandsrand are fully implemented, Randfontein is in various stages of implementation and the Orkney operations remain on conops.