Platinum strike: Wage gap?

28 May 2014, by Tracey Swanepoel

Platinum strike: Wage gap? Pah. Real crisis is canyon of communication.

R12 500 seems to be a magic number. It has been the pivotal point of wage negotiations in the platinum sector, which up until now has caused a deadlock resulting in a four-month strike (the end of which is hopefully imminent).

Both AMCU and the platinum producers have argued cogently around this number. According to AMCU this will redress the 20-year post apartheid lag, and is the only figure that will satisfy the workforce. Producers have argued that adding this +/-30 % to their cost base will most certainly put them out of business, (if not now then soon) or at the very least result in jobs permanently lost due to the need to restructure.

Let’s fast forward into the future for a moment. Settlement will be reached. The strike will end: hopefully sooner rather than later. Then what? The money gap may have been bridged, but what about the communication gap between management and their employees?

Ketso Gordhan, one of South Africa’s most credible CEO’s recently identified that the communication gap between management and employees is even larger than the wage gap. It’s a grand canyon of such proportions that when AMCU filed a legal motion against employers for communicating directly with their employees it was taken in its stride. Am I the only one who thought that this was insane?

Yes, insane (and I know these days one has to be careful using psychiatric diagnoses, but still). This is like the Springbok front row stopping the game mid way through, calling a meeting (with their union) before deciding how, when and where to pass the ball to the back line. (To make this even more ludicrous, the union, not the players are the communication channel). Meanwhile the fans (market) are leaving in droves; you can’t give away tickets at the door and the game itself (platinum mining) is under threat.

For me this analogy is useful in that helps highlight a few significant points:

I can just hear the groundswell of cynics here: “Pah! All very well to compare mining to a sports team. We have 50/60/ 70 0000 employees, not 15! They don’t speak the same language, can’t read, aren’t educated and really don’t need to know the game plan/strategy; after all it’s sensitive information. We inform the union on a “need to know” basis only!” (I could go on here, but will restrain myself in the interests of space and flow).

Paraphrasing the wise words of Einstein: the thinking that got us here, is not the thinking that will get us there! In other words the prevailing mindset won’t help to bridge the enormous gap between management and employees. So how could we think differently about this canyon?

Thinking differently about size and structure

Instead of starting at the top, let’s start at the bottom: every 50 000 people company is made up of multiple 15 man rock breaking teams. These are the “players” that need to know the game plan and their contribution to it so that they can have a good day.

Thinking differently about management and leadership

It’s management’s job to serve the teams by creating the right environment (i.e. ensuring they have the right equipment and information). To do this, management need to have a relationship with their team underground. In my days at Harmony I remember that when it was suggested to middle management that they need to know their teams’ names as a basic first step, the idea was seen as nothing short of revolutionary. How can you lead people if you don’t even know their names?

Thinking differently about communication

Use the “C” word in the mining industry and it immediately conjures up images of briefs – translated into all 11 official languages from the general manager to “all” – sometimes with a colour picture of the manager! That’s NOT what I am talking about. That’s S.O.S (Sending Out Stuff). It’s NOT communication and it gives communication a bad name.

Instead of “communication” let’s use “relationship.” Relationships are the ultimate democracy: a two way street. They are defined by the active choice of the participants (otherwise it’s not a relationship). No matter how many times companies refer to “our” employees, the fact remains that they do not own their employees. “Their” employees have a choice: to listen, to understand, to engage and to act. And we can measure this choice. In a recent study of the global workforce (among 90 0000 employees), Towers Watson found that 75% of all employees are actively disengaged at work. This means that they have made a choice to NOT engage. They may be physically present “on the field” but their ears are closed, their arms are folded, their feet are rooted and their eyes are shut. Although these studies haven’t been conducted at our platinum mines, I fear they may be a lot worse.

What does drive a relationship of engagement?

People (educated or not, skilled or unskilled) want the same basic things. We want to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to belong, to see how our contribution has made a difference. Think about the ANC when it was an underground movement. Do you think they had Patterson grades, minimum wages, and union negotiations? It was never about the money (there wasn’t any); it was about the cause, the struggle. In many cases people paid with their lives for what they believed in – their part in the bigger story.

Thinking differently about strategy

Story, or more specifically translating the company strategy into a compelling story, is one of the key ingredients to bridging the canyon between management and employees. Stories simplify, making complex information understandable; they create shared meaning and evoke emotions. As human beings our brains are hard wired to understand and remember stories. “Story” is the universal language – we all speak it!

During the days of the much quoted Harmony Story/Harmony Way I saw shift bosses, miners, and underground workers’ eyes light up as they “got it”. Outsiders marveled at how investors in New York and Rock Drill Operators in Welkom “sang in perfect Harmony”. There were many factors that contributed, but one thing I can say for sure, none of them had anything to do with R12 500!