South Africa’s Labor Disputes Could Hurt Fight Against Air Pollution

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June 12 2013 8:30 AM

The Worldwide Ramifications of South Africa’s Labor Disputes

The country is the best source for metals critical for making lower-emission vehicles.

Mineworkers take part in a march at Lonmin's Marikana mine in South Africa's North West Province, Sept. 5, 2012.
Mineworkers take part in a march at Lonmin's Marikana mine in South Africa's North West Province, Sept. 5, 2012.

Photo by Mike Hutchings/Reuters

In May, security officials confronted 500 protesters at a chromium mine in Rustenburg, South Africa. Rubber bullets were fired, and 10 people were hospitalized. This is just the latest in a series of wildcat strikes turned violent in South African mines. Most notably, 34 miners died during a confrontation between miners and police in August at a platinum mine in Marikana.

These strikes are the result of rapidly deteriorating labor relations in the South African mining industry. Mining companies are facing increased financial pressure from rising costs and low global metal prices. They must also contend with rolling blackouts, which is crucial in the energy-intensive mining industry. This harms routine mining production and profits. As a result of these difficulties, companies are considering downsizing and laying off workers in an attempt to return to profitability.

Understandably, mine workers are not happy about the possibility of losing their jobs. They are also demanding higher wages because their salaries are not keeping up with the rapidly rising cost of living. To top this all off, rival labor unions are attempting to win workers’ support by making seemingly impossible-to-meet demands of mining companies. For instance, the National Union of Mineworkers wants to increase wages for gold and coal miners up to 60 percent. The rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union—which has successfully poached enough members from the NUM to represent a majority of platinum miners—is expected to put in similarly ambitious wage demands. Together, these challenges have contributed to souring relations, sporadic work stoppages, and violence in South Africa. This pressure will only increase in the coming weeks as all parties work to renew a labor agreement.

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This may seem like a disturbing but purely domestic issue. However, the outcomes of these talks could have serious effects around the world, especially in the automobile industry and for the environment.

That’s because South African–mined platinum group metals (PGM) are vital to reducing vehicle pollutant emissions worldwide. The metals are used in catalysts—car components placed in vehicle exhaust streams. These catalysts cause chemical reactions that lower tailpipe emissions. Without functioning catalysts, it’s difficult to imagine how car manufacturers would be able to meet emissions regulations around the world.

And without platinum and palladium—the most common PGM used for vehicles—catalysts would be ineffective, more expensive, or both. Gasoline vehicles rely more on palladium, diesel vehicles on platinum. South African mines supply 73 percent of the world’s platinum and 36 percent of the world’s palladium. Worldwide, 67 percent of palladium demand comes from gasoline vehicles, and 40 percent of platinum demand comes from diesel vehicles.

In the right conditions, precious metals initiate chemical reactions that convert harmful pollutants into inert compounds. Platinum and palladium are the most effective at the temperatures and gas composition of diesel and gasoline exhaust. As of yet, there are no optimal alternate metals for platinum and palladium in catalysts. That’s because platinum and palladium are chemically superior and just right for the temperature and gas-makeup conditions in diesel and gasoline exhaust. Substituting them would be like replacing Goldilocks’ porridge with one that was too hot or too cold.

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