Workers in the mining industry feel that they are treated like “human machines” and their increasing discontent has become evident through events such as the recent strikes in the South African mining industry, says organisation development consultancy The Narrative Lab cofounder and director Aiden Choles.
On the surface, it seems as if the strikes were about wages, which is a valid reason for protesting; however, the events that took place at platinum producer Lonmin’s Marikana mine in August was a symptom of a much bigger problem facing the South African mining industry and the underlying issues relating to humanity need to be recognised, he says.
Workers feel that they are being treated like a resource and that the only reason they work is to bring in profit for the company. Thus, they are not being treated with humanity and there are challenges for workers in finding meaning and purpose in their jobs, he explains.
“Humanity means different things to different people, but we have found that it comes down to the extent to which an employee can be a whole person in his or her working environment and whether the person feels that his or her task has meaning,” Choles tells Mining Weekly.
The nature of the mining industry and its history contribute to it being one of the places where a lack of humanity in the workplace is clearly evident in the South African economy.
“The mining industry is, in essence, tough and unfriendly and there is a lot of pressure that makes the working conditions and huma- nity difficult to match, while the history of the mining industry is one where people have been dehumanised,” Choles explains.
However, this is changing, with more mining companies openly stating that their workers are their most important asset. Therefore, while the mining industry can be accused of dehumanising its employees, it also has to be given credit for attempting to change, he notes.
“But our sense is that, while these companies are changing, they are not changing quickly enough, which is why we are seeing events such as Marikana,” Choles states.
“What we have seen in the platinum belt is growing dis- content among workers about the lack of humanity and for this reason I do not believe that Marikana will be the last severe protest,” he adds.
Further, workers are also leaving the traditional unions and forming their own strike committees, which is positive in the sense that they have found their voice and are raising their issues, says Choles.
Meanwhile, The Narrative Lab continuously detected through its work that relationships between mine management and employees are extremely damaged and in need of significant healing.
“I believe that if these relationships had been nourished in the past, some of the unrest could have been avoided,” he says.
Choles suggests that the mining industry should repri- oritise relationships, as an employer’s relationship with his employees will influence the quality of work that is done.
“How people do their jobs depends on how they are treated and without a motivated workforce, production will suffer,” he explains.
Organisations should be aware of how they dehumanise their workers and workers should become aware of how they are dehumanised and make conscious choices to create a rehumanised organisation.
“It is also important to note that workers and management are equally dehumanised,” Choles points out.
“It is easy to notice how workers are dehumanised by management; however, one should also recognise how managers are being dehumanised by having to take on a certain persona to get the job done.
“Managers have tough targets and to reach these, they have to adapt their personalities to enable them to manage the workforce,” he explains.
Further, mining companies should move away from regarding shareholder profit as the reason for their existence and place more value on benefits for all the company’s stakeholders, which include employees and the surrounding communities of a mine.
If mine nationalisation is considered from this perspective, one could perceive it as a society where people feel they are the co-owners of a mine, as stake- holders, who should also benefit from mining operations and be involved in making decisions that they are affected by, Choles says.
In the past, the cost of mining was passed on to society, the environment and communities and these people are now objecting to it, stating that they want this debt paid. “For this reason, Marikana can be seen as a symptom of a growing humanity debt incurred by the mining industry,” he adds.
Mines will have to start repaying this debt, figuratively speaking, to avoid further uprising, he concludes.