By Lai Brown
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How South African mine workers struck against sexual harassment – and won

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Issue 2661
Lanxess mine workers struck and won over sexual harassment
Lanxess mine workers struck and won over sexual harassment

On 19 June, 290 members of National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa) at Lanxess Chrome Mine (LCM) commenced an underground sit-in strike. The strike from below, which lasted nine days, was against sexual harassment and in solidarity with dismissed co-workers.

Prior to the decisive action, top managers of LCM sexually harassed and verbally abused a worker with impunity. Rubbing salt on an open wound, the human resource manager, security manager and his wife further victimised the woman.

Other managers didn’t take any serious approach to bring the perpetrators to book. Rather they were supportive of the perpetrator and criminalised the abused female worker.

The company had dismissed 20 workers that earlier participated in a community protest against the failure of Lanxess Mine to deliver on its promise to the host community in accordance with the Social Labour Plan. Similarly, 32 workers were dismissed for participating in a strike.

These and other attacks on workers informed their collective action and formed the basis of their demands. A primary demand was for the manager who was alleged to have sexually harassed workers to be suspended immediately. Also, in their demands was a call for the immediate reinstatement of the workers who were illegally dismissed.

The workers stood their ground for almost two weeks. Despite the terrors they faced from within the mine and outside, they made it clear that they would not call off the strike without resolution of their grievances.

The workers sacrificed their health, their families’ comforts, and lived in the cold stone mine throughout the strike. Management sent armed guards into the mine to disband the strikers but were unsuccessful.

On many occasions that Numsa sent food to the strikers, management prevented these being delivered. On 25 June a truckload of food sent by Numsa was delayed in the sun by security personnel. The food items were later disposed because they had gotten rotten.

When confronted, the security guards confessed that management ordered them not to allow any food to get to the strikers. Lanxess also cut off the electricity underground, depriving strikers of water and ventilation. This callous approach led to twelve strikers being hospitalised.

Victorious workers emerge from the sit-in
Victorious workers emerge from the sit-in (Pic: @Numsa_Media on Twitter)

The despotic reaction of management was a gross violation of strikers’ human rights. These however exposed how desperate bosses were in their fear of the unity, determination and power of working class people.

It further reveals that bosses are prepared to put the lives of workers on the line to sustain the expansion and authority of capital.

On 25 June relatives of the strikers, which included nursing mothers, sisters and brothers, protested at the front gate of LCM and demanded that management comply with the demands of the strikers.

Seeing the determination of the workers, management caved in, complying with many of the demands.

These include placing the alleged perpetrator under special leave pending conclusion of the sexual harassment case and investigation of the alleged failure of three LCM managers to properly deal with the allegations to determine whether the concerned LCM managers should be disciplined.

Also, some of the dismissed workers were recalled and Numsa is pursuing the reinstatement of others through legal procedure.

In the evening of 27 June, workers called off the strike and emerged triumphant from the underground. This shows that, when we as workers unite, we can break our chains.

It is only when we fightback that we can stop oppression and exploitation. It is only with struggle that we can win social changes.

We must continue to organise and fight against exploitation and oppression in all its forms. We must overthrow capitalism to make permanent our victories against exploitation, racism and sexism.

The Lanxess Mine management don’t just exploit employees of the company. They also despoil the environment and attack working class people in the community. LCM shut down an access road which had been used for the benefit of the community of Mokhukhwini. The bosses are on all-out war against working class people both in the factories and in the communities.

It is important that working class people unite the war in the factory with the war in the community. That is – workers, students, peasants and poor farmers must unite and fight to tear down the system of capitalism and build socialism from below on its ruin.

Lai Brown is the Organising Secretary of AUTOBATE, the automobile and boatyard workers’ union affiliated to Trade Union Congress, and the National Secretary of Socialist Workers League (SWL) in Nigeria. This is an edited version of an article that appeared on the SWL website. Video of celebrating mineworkers here

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