By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Striking South African workers at mines operated by Anglo American Platinum
Miners with the hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) downed tools on Friday to protest plans by Amplats, the world's largest producer of the precious metal, to cut 3,300 jobs to restore profits.
The strike is centered around Amplats mines near the town of Rustenburg in the restive platinum belt, where AMCU has poached tens of thousands of members from the once unrivalled National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in a bloody turf war that has killed dozens of people the past 18 months.
The NUM said on Sunday it was taking Amplats to the Labour Court on Tuesday to oppose the lay-offs. Its members are not officially taking part in the AMCU stoppage but they have been staying away.
AMCU represents 40 percent of Amplats' workforce but the company on Friday said attendance levels were below 20 percent.
AMCU activists have said they will strike until their demands are met.
AMCU has used such stoppages in the past to express anger at company moves and then its leaders have told workers at rallies to return to the shafts while they continue talks.
"We are going to continue with the strike until the company withdraws these forced retrenchments," Makhanya Siphamandla, an AMCU organizer in Rustenburg, told Reuters by telephone. AMCU's national leaders were not immediately available for comment.
Amplats, a unit of global mining giant Anglo American
Unlike those stoppages, the current action is legal and in keeping with a change of tactics by AMCU, which was behind a wave of wildcat strikes that rocked South Africa's gold and platinum sectors last year.
Amplats chief executive Chris Griffith, mindful of how strikes drove the company into losses last year, said on Friday stoppages could put more jobs at risk.
Cutting jobs strikes emotional and political chords in South Africa, where income disparities are glaring and the unemployment rate is officially around 25 percent but could be over 40 percent.
The mining industry has shed hundreds of thousands of jobs since the ruling African National Congress (ANC) came to power when white rule ended in 1994, but the party has taken a tough line with Amplats ahead of elections next year.
NUM is also a key political ally of the ANC and its loss of members to AMCU has made the ruling party especially sensitive to worker anger in the mining shafts.
Amplats needs to find a path back to profitability given relatively poor global demand for the white metal used for building emissions-capping converters in automobiles.
Anglo American chief executive Mark Cutifani told Reuters in August that "nothing is sacrosanct" and the platinum unit would be removed from the portfolio if it did not deliver.
Coal producers and unions also meet on Monday to hammer out wage agreements and avert strikes that could hit exports to Europe and Asia and supplies to power firm Eskom.
Platinum wage talks have hardly gotten off the ground and could lead to more strikes next month. This could help support the price as South Africa accounts for about 75 percent of global supplies of the commodity.
(Editing by David Cowell)