Striking S.African gold miners start returning to work

Some striking South African gold mine workers have accepted a new wage offer from producers and started returning to work Friday, a union leader said.

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) secretary general Frans Baleni replied "yes" when asked if the workers had accepted a revised deal.

"There are some operations where they have returned to work and at other operations we are still finalising discussions," Baleni told AFP.

He did not elaborate on the deal or the number of strikers that reported for their shifts.

Tens of thousands of gold miners downed tools Tuesday night demanding higher wages in the latest in a series of strikes to hit South Africa.

Gold producers' representatives were not immediately available for comment.

A local NUM leader told AFP Thursday that the revised offer was between 7.5 and eight percent, a slight increase from employers' last offer of 6.5 percent.

The NUM, which represents nearly 70,000 affected workers, has demanded a 60-percent hike in basic wages as it battles to remain the dominant union in the gold sector.

Two smaller firms secured deals with their workers early in the week. Evander Gold Mine and Village Main Reef agreed to increases of between 7.5 and eight percent for around 5,000 affected workers.

The seven firms represented by the Chamber of Mines on Thursday reported that 16 of 23 mines were severely affected by the industrial action.

But by Friday they had pulled from their website a page that had been showing worker attendance data.

Police meanwhile denied a claim by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) that at least five of its members had been assaulted for not striking.

"Those reports have been proven to be false. We can say loud and clear that nobody was assaulted, nobody was intimidated," said Welkom city police spokesman Stephen Thakeng in Free State province.

The AMCU, a radical union which is in competition to the NUM, has not called a strike. It said the aggression against non-strikers occurred at the Sibanye Gold mine near Welkom.

The mine management was unaware of the incident.

The AMCU will decide at the weekend on pay demands and whether to down tools or not.

Gold remains a key industry in Africa's largest economy, accounting for 10 percent of export earnings and three percent of Gross Domestic Product.

Falling gold prices, a declining grade of ore and increased costs such as electricity and wages have drained gold firms' revenues.

Industrial action is common in South Africa during the mid-year months, when thousands of workers down tools for higher pay. The gold strikes follow ongoing stoppages in the construction and automobile sectors.

Observers feared similar unrest to widespread strikes last year, sparked by a police crackdown at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine which left 34 dead.

But this year strikes have been relatively calm.