SPRINGS, South Africa — More than 100 miners escaped from a gold mine in South Africa on Wednesday after being held underground for three days by fellow employees in a union dispute, a company official said.
Around 450 workers remain in the mine, the official said, with an unknown number of them preventing the others from leaving as they demand formal recognition of their labor union. The company that runs the mine says it has rough estimates that around 110-120 of the miners underground might be supporters of the unregistered union and were holding the others, although it was not certain.
The union – The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union – gave another version of the events and says the miners were staying underground willingly as a protest in support of the union.
Police and mine officials have called it a “hostage” situation.
The standoff at the Modder East mine in Springs, east of Johannesburg, began early Monday after 562 miners and other workers remained underground at the end of their night shift.
Mine officials say approximately 15 were injured in scuffles, including a man that authorities think sustained a serious head injury. When mine officials sent a paramedic and a security officer to evacuate the man from the mine, they were also taken hostage, according to the head of the mine.
On Wednesday, 109 miners forced their way out, said Ziyaad Hassam, the head of legal at Gold One International, the company that owns the mine.
“This morning, they banded together and overpowered those controlling them and blocking the exits,” Hassam said. “They are tired, exhausted and dehydrated.”
The miners who came out were giving statements to police and being examined at a clinic, but none appeared to have any serious injuries, Hassam said. He said the mine workers who were injured in scuffles earlier in the week were still underground and the standoff was continuing.
The AMCU union says it represents the majority of miners at Modder East and they want the union to be recognized. The mine currently has a closed-shop agreement for its at its miners to be represented by another union, the National Union of Mineworkers, or NUM.
“Look, the dispute is simple, and we have been saying this for the past few days,” AMCU regional secretary Tladi Mokwena said. “Workers are saying they do not wish, or no longer want to belong to NUM. They want to be represented by AMCU as the trade union of their choice.”
“(Mine) management and NUM are refusing by all means to grant AMCU access into the operation in terms of recognition,” he said.
Mokwena said AMCU officials were not in contact with the mine workers underground and were not being allowed near the mine, but Hassam said underground telephones were used to call an AMCU leader.
Police sent to the mine have taken a cautious approach and not launched an operation to go underground and confront miners who might be holding others.
The rivalry between the AMCU and NUM unions is well known in South African mining circles and was partly behind one of the country’s most horrific mining episodes, when 34 striking miners were shot dead by police at a platinum mine in North West province in 2012.
Six other mineworkers, two police officers and two private security guards were killed as violence spiraled out of control at the Marikana mine in the days leading up to the mass police shooting, the most lethal use of force by South African police since the 1976 Soweto uprisings against the apartheid regime.
Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa.
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