Mechanisation in the mining industry is gaining momentum in boardrooms where labour concerns and increasing production costs now weigh heavy on mining executives.

Three years of labour upheaval and a political push to make the shafts safer and transform the low-wage workforce have set in motion a drive to replace such rock drillers with machines.

Labour issue

Cadiz Corporate Solutions fund manager, Peter Major believes that labour unrest such as that which hit the platinum industry in South Africa this year will be a driver for mechanisation.

“Labor militancy is dictating our push to mechanisation and boardrooms will rubber stamp this stuff,” Major told Reuters in an interview.

Rock drillers made obsolete

At Anglo American Platinum’s Bathopele mine near Rustenburg west of Johannesburg, technology has already made rock drillers obsolete and hydraulic machines do the job, blazing an automated trail others are keen to follow.

The costly change is happening despite the obstacles thrown by geology, low platinum prices and capital constraints, according to reports.

Unprecedented cooperation

Mechanisation plans are in the works at other mining stables including Impala Platinum, which recently sent a team to Bathopele to observe the lay-out – an unprecedented example of cooperation in an industry that has long been fiercely competitive and secretive, according to reports.

At Anglo American Platinum’s Bathopele mine near Rustenburg west of Johannesburg, technology has already made rock drillers obsolete and hydraulic machines do the job, blazing an automated trail others are keen to follow.

Automation drive

In a drive towards greater automation at mines, Amplats wants to sell off its conventional mines to focus on mechanisation while an Implats executive has said ‘we will mechanise where we can’.

A government safety drive with the goal of ‘zero harm’ has also triggered a scramble to find less lethal mining methods.

The industry says the pivot to mechanisation was in the works even before Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union’s (AMCUs) emergence on the platinum belt, where it has poached tens of thousands of members from the rival National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in a turf war that has killed dozens and unleashed the recent waves of labor unrest, reported Reuters.

Impact on unions

“AMCU understands that mechanization can undermine its collective power,” said Crispen Chinguno, a researcher at the sociology department of Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand and an expert on the union, told Reuters,

At Bathopele, higher-paid employees including AMCU members broke union ranks during the big strike this year and it started limited production before the wider industry stoppage ended.

Officials from AMCU declined comment on the issue of mechanization. Rival unions have concerns about jobs but welcome the mechanized trend if the aim is better pay and safety.

“We have a problem with the introduction of mechanization if its sole purpose is to replace labor. But if it’s about safety and workers getting more pay, then we don’t have such a problem,” Frans Baleni, NUM’s General Secretary, told Reuters.