The Mining Industry and Employment Equity: A Challenge for the Future

By Teresa Oakley-Smith

Perhaps one of the more interesting facets of the recently released white paper on mining and minerals is the attention paid to internal transformation, reflected in the emphasis on compliance with employment equity, skills development and the eradication of racism

The new draft mining charter suggests that effective compliance with the Employment Equity Act should play an important part in empowerment considerations within the industry.

Though mining companies are already complying with the Act and many have established training programmes to develop members of designated groups, the need to comply with the Employment Equity Act certainly creates a number of challenges for the industry. Traditionally regarded as an industry with a dominant male culture and one in which historically, black employees have worked at lower levels, filing a realistic and achievable plan presents a number of difficulties. Some of these are external and apply to all mines. For example there is a shortage of mining engineers generally in South Africa and particularly within the designated groups of black South Africans, women and persons with disabilities.

Furthermore, the history of the mining industry is one which is riddled with difficulties for the black South Africans who might have wished and had the potential to advance and develop. As the White Paper notes “The labour situation in mining has been associated with the most controversial aspects of colonial apartheid rule. These include pass laws, compounds, the migrant labour system, the reservation of skilled work for white people” While the pass laws are no longer with us, a visit to most mines will still reveal hostels looking very much like compounds, many migrant abourers and while no longer reserved, most skilled work is still being done by white people. “Plus ca change!”

In particular, it was job reservation that prevented black South Africans from taking on more skilled jobs and thus there is now a shortage of blacks at a middle management level within many mining groups. Similarly there is a dearth of women at all levels. Mining has traditionally been regarded as a male preserve by both employers and workers and from the perspective of defining and achieving realistic numerical goals the industry faces many challenges. It is estimated that there are only 800 female miners in total working in South African mines as opposed to the far larger numbers found in some of our neighbouring countries. There is therefore an absence of a strong foundation on which to create equity in the workplace and hence a strong risk of further entrenching a particular organisational culture within the mines. In order to counter this, the mining industry is engaged in various strategies to up skill its workforce. Lower level employees have access to ABET training and initiatives are underway to identify those with the potential to be trained for higher level occupations.

In addition to the external challenges, the Employment Equity Act presents the mines with additional challenges in terms of creating an environment in which all South Africans and particularly those from within the designated groups can develop and advance. The Employment Equity Act of 1998 refers to this as “creating an enabling environment”. Critical to this is the understanding, valuing, supervising and managing of diversity as a strategic tool to build relationships and enhance productivity. Well-functioning relationships are the core of effective business and the mining industry is no exception.

The area of diversity training is one in which many strides have been made globally in the last few years. South African organisations have kept track of these changes and indeed South Africa has much to offer the rest of the world in terms of understanding and capitalising on the strength of diversity. Diversity training is a niche area of training, which demands effective programmes, processes and above all, strong multilingual and multicultural teams of facilitators with a good understanding of the industry to succeed. Diversity, well understood and managed has a strong positive correlation with productivity. Recent surveys undertaken in the USA indicate that among the Fortune 500 top organisations those which manage diversity well are the most profitable, while those that do not have a diverse workforce, or do not manage it well, are the least profitable. Among the benefits that result from effective diversity management are improved performance, enhanced creativity and innovation, improved problem solving, enhanced organisational flexibility, improved decision making based on different perspectives and improved team work. To this list, one could add improved safety since in the mining industry the issue of safety demands trust, good communication and effective relationships between teams and their leaders as well as between individual miners.

Creating the necessary enabling environment will also mean doing away with the racism, sexism and xenophobia which still characterise the industry. It is reassuring to note in the White Paper that “Government is unshakeable in its commitment to (the) removal of racial discrimination in the workplace”. Our own experience of working recently in mining companies suggests that this may be more difficult than it might seem. Racial attitudes are entrenched and initiatives designed to address discrimination tend to be attended mainly by black workers while their white managers stay away. Real and concentrated efforts need to be made in the area of eradicating all discrimination within the mines and to this end the proposed Workplace Anti-Discrimination Act would find fertile ground within the mining industry.

While racism remains predominant, there is also strong stereotyping of and prejudice towards women, people with HIV/Aids and nationals of other countries. What is needed from a human resources perspective is a systemic process, driven by committed leadership, involving line managers and all employees. Educational initiatives need to be supported by performance management systems that recognise that managing difference is essential in any South African organisation. This can only be achieved through a process driven educational strategy which incentivises appropriate behaviour. Similarly, the need for “same-status contact” is critical at all levels and while one can look to the Tokyo Sexwales and the Patrice and Brigid Motsepes at the leadership level, there is a dearth of role models for black or female aspirants at many other levels. This creates the likelihood that few black South Africans or women will be attracted to the industry and furthermore for those that do, the prevailing organisational climate is not conducive to retention.

The skills development Act is an invaluable tool for transforming organisational culture; however as the white paper points out “up until now training provided by mining companies has been, perforce, fragmented and lacks national standardisation. The situation is being addressed by the South African Qualifications authority Act.”

Many mining companies are already utilising the benefits of the Skills Development Act to improve technical training possibilities for their previously disadvantaged workers and perhaps pressure should be put on MQA (Mining Qualifications Authority) to include the benefits of employment equity, antiprejudice and diversity training in its employer levy grant system. It is interesting to note that uring the last Skills Development year, the MQA did not follow the approach of a numbers of SETAs where employers were rewarded with a discretionary grant for Employment Equity and diversity training initiatives. Employment Equity and Skills Development need to be complementary if either is to succeed and with the challenge facing the mining industry in terms of transforming the workplace any financial benefits accrued for doing so would surely be welcomed.

Theresa Oakley-Smith

Managing Director of Diversi-T