South Africa: The rise of employee value in the mining workplace

In brief

The most precious commodity in any workplace is a thriving and happy workforce. Employees want to know they are working in a role that provides not only personal meaning, but that the business is fulfilling its responsibilities to society and the environment. Employers, including those in the mining sector, that are able to correctly identify the right mix of workforce policies available to them and then find ways of accommodating and communicating with their staff to create meaning, purpose and well-being for them, are at a strategic advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining valuable talent. 

In depth

In a post-pandemic search for meaning, the modern workforce is increasingly demanding that their employers' activities match their own personal ideals, and the mining sector is no different. Employees expect the company they work for to operate in a sustainable way and provide benefits for the environment, local economies and surrounding communities, all while maintaining a core focus on employee wellbeing, as well as their physical health and safety. With this renewed focus on corporate citizenship, mining companies have had to ensure they identify sustainability risks and opportunities in every part of their business strategy, including in workforce planning. 

Attracting the right talent particularly requires responsible leadership and increasing transparency. Employees of the modern workforce want to be in an environment where they feel they are making a meaningful contribution to the greater global issues. Employees, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders are also demanding that organizations take a stance on important issues such as racism, sexual harassment, unemployment, climate change and income inequality, for example. In the mining sector this extends to the communities in which the mines are located and incorporates ensuring that such communities are cared for and included. Mining companies are turning this challenge into a competitive advantage by creating workplaces with purposeful engagement and ways to accommodate a diverse set of employees with differing needs. 

Changing strategies

While labor unrest in the mining industry, and those industries that support mining, is increasing, mining employers are also considering changes in their employee relations strategy that move from the primary focus being on collective engagement to recognizing the needs of smaller interest groups or, where possible, individual employees. Employee engagement surveys, individual feedback sessions, career planning, performance management, employee goal and expectation setting, anonymized feedback channels and exit interviews are useful tools in the arsenal of the modern people practitioner and line manager.

These and other communication vehicles are likely to be a more accurate barometer of the employee relations climate than considering the number of days lost due to industrial action, number of grievances filed, or labor disputes declared. In this era of high employee mobility – even when taking into account the dramatic unemployment rate – staff appear to become more inclined to vote with their feet than filing a grievance or demanding that their trade union resolve the issue with the employer.

A successful business will also create opportunities for feedback and information from staff and stakeholders outside (or in addition to) the traditional upward communication channels. They will also find workplace-appropriate mechanisms to regularly test the employee relations climate, being nimble to adjust employee relations strategies to tailor to the fast-changing views of society as reflected in the workplace. A further imperative for employers of the modern workforce will be creating purpose for employees by communicating an understanding of what the business is and the reason for its existence, then linking that to the function of the teams and individuals.

Dealing with violence and harassment at work

It is undisputed that there is an increasingly high rate of global violence against women, and with more studies pointing to the growing rate of the violent harassment of men, especially those in vulnerable social positions such as migrants. As such, employers are assessing their current policies and considering whether they are fulfilling their common law and statutory obligations when dealing with violence and harassment in the workplace. Further, some employers are now going further and considering establishing workplace rules that make it a workplace offense to commit acts of violence against women or men, stating employees who are convicted of violent crimes may be dismissed, even if the crime took place away from the workplace and against a private person.

I&D programmes

Mining companies know that inclusive and diverse (I&D) corporate cultures lead to increased productivity and meaningful employee engagement, which ultimately offer immense value to businesses. I&D fosters innovative participation, which gives rise to a confluence of creative ideas arising from the richness of different backgrounds and experiences, all of which work together in the formulation of solutions to business challenges and idea-generation. Simply put, diverse spaces ultimately lead to better outcomes than homogenous spaces. As such, conscious and forward-looking businesses consider I&D to be a measure of their success and indispensable to their overall sustainability. I&D is firmly on the agenda of most organizations and businesses around the world.

Scrutiny of income inequality

Recent reports show that South Africa is one of the worlds’ most unequal countries when it comes to income. Research by Aroop Chatterjee, Léo Czajka and Amory Gethin found that, before taxes, the share of average income going to the top 1% of earners in South Africa increased by 50% in the period 1993 to 2019, while the income of the poorest 50% decreased by more than 30%, after inflation.

In South Africa, Section 27 of the Employment Equity Act (EEA) requires designated employers (employers who employ more than 50 employees or meet a certain annual turnover threshold specific to their threshold) to report income differentials across both race and gender groups, but this is a confidential document submitted to the Department of Labour and it does not have to be made transparent.

In addition to complying with these legal requirements, mining companies are addressing income inequality within their businesses through analyzing data on pay differentials and conducting audits of their employment policies and practices. Income equality considerations should permeate all business processes that relate to and influence the employee experience - from recruitment to inclusive onboarding initiatives, teambuilding culture, performance reviews, succession planning, mentoring and sponsorship, for example. The focus should be on empowering employees to have, not only equal pay for work of equal value, but also, for example, equitable access to work opportunities, skills development and training, the right to capital assets, as well as access to programmes that focus on, for example, women’s health and well-being in the workplace. 

Employers should set targets and measurable goals to address income equality and ensure that such targets are published in the public domain. Transparency has been noted as key in addressing and being held accountable for reducing global income inequality. Beyond the need to do the right thing, as well as to comply with country-specific employment regulations, there are other reasons for addressing income equality – most notably the high correlation between income equality and diversity, workforce productivity and business profits.

Essentially, employees want to know they are working in a role that provides not only personal meaning, but that the business is fulfilling its responsibilities to society and the environment. In return for providing this, businesses are able to attract and keep their most precious commodity - thriving, happy employees who gain meaningful, layered rewards from their work.

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