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Platinum futures spiked to $1,466 an ounce yesterday [Tuesday] as 270,000 South African miners declared a one-day strike protesting the safety record of the country's mining companies.
Leaders from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) estimated 40,000 members marched in front of the Johannesburg Chamber of Mines,reports.
Nearly one miner dies every day in South Africa, but these latest protests were brought about by an October accident that temporarily trapped 3,200 Harmony Gold miners underground for two days.
Both sides agree that safety must be improved. However, there are trust issues.
"The industry made a lot of empty commitments, and the fatality rates are forever rising to the stars… employers need to take a leadership role and invest in safety the same way they invest in production," Erick Gcilitshana, NUM head of safety and health, told the BBC.
Even a work stoppage of one day will do noticeable damage to the South African economy, as 16% of the nation's GDP is produced by mining and related activities.
The pressure is great to come to an agreement. However, NUM leaders have made it clear they will not shy away from a larger demonstration of their displeasure.
"If the big companies do not do anything to improve safety, we will be back on the streets again, we will stop the mines with a two or three months strike," Lesiba Seshoka, spokesman for the NUM,.
If the disagreements between the two sides escalate, world commodity prices would likely be affected. South Africa produces 11% of the world's gold, and approximately 80% of the world's platinum.
Platinum, especially, would skyrocket, as there are no major aboveground supplies of the metal, and few alternate mining sources.
Both sides are hopeful it won't come to that.
"We share these [safety] concerns with the union," Frans Barker, a senior Chamber of Mines official, told the BBC. "We've agreed with the union that they will go on this work-stoppage, in exchange for which the parties will sit down in the next few weeks and months. And we're going to jointly work out action plans and pledges to address the issue of safety."
There will be many groups rooting for a swift and equitable solution. Beyond the needs of gold- and platinum-reliant industries and the physical and economic health of the individual workers, any major stoppage would deal a serious blow to South Africa, and by extension, noticeably slow the entire African continent.
Since January, platinum prices have jumped more than 27%.
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