In modern times there has rarely a more graphic case of the business risks of poor employee engagement than the horrific recent events at Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana, South Africa.
On 16th August, police fired live ammunition into a crowd of protesting strikers, killing 34 of them. It appears that many protestors were armed, that there had been fights between rival unions, and that the police are claiming self-defence after two from their own ranks were killed. But ultimately the responsibility for the conditions in which such a poisonous atmosphere developed lies with management. Mining is always difficult, dirty and dangerous. Lonmin’s miners endure their conditions for no more than around $350 a month.
The tipping point in the protest came when managers threatened the strikers with returning to work or facing the sack. With breathtaking insensitivity, this threat was repeated after the massacre, though management have softened their stance since.
Doubtless, the company’s bean counters this year will have advised against a significant raise to the meagre pay, citing costs and lower platinum prices. But doubtless no one factored in the cost of not making the raise. The company now faces damaged confidence, a potential rights issue and may breach its banking covenants at the end of September.
These business consequences are dwarfed by the human tragedy of last week, but serve as further proof that the idea that the workers’ interests are inherently opposed to the interests of managers and owners is a myth: a myth that has caused generations of workers around the world to suffer perfectly avoidable misery.
The sheer futility of treating your own workforce as the enemy is clear. It leads to a war; a war in which both sides lose. The Lonmin management has to stop making threats, apologise to all its workers, and offer a new deal based on much higher wages. That makes business as well as human sense.
- For a case study on how a living wage policy is leading to better business for Marks & Spencer suppliers in Bangladesh, read here on the case study section of New Normal, Radical Shift.