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South African miners treated as 'slaves': Union head

The president of South Africa's main trade union for platinum workers told CNBC that miners were treated like slaves, after ordering strikes that will start on Thursday.

South Africa's main platinum producers, Anglo American Platinum, Lonmin and Impala Platinum, were served with strike notices, along with some of the country's gold producers. Union members are demanding a minimum wage of 12,500 rand ($1,153) a month, which is around double their current pay.

Joseph Mathunjwa, the president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), told CNBC the strike was aimed at improving workers' quality of life, and denied it was a move to attract members from a rival union.

"We want a better living for the mine workers who have been exploited for decades and decades, even after we (South Africa) ushered in democracy… Workers are still paid as slaves," Mathunjwa said on Monday.

AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa addresses miners in August, 2013
J. Countess | Getty Images
AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa addresses miners in August, 2013

He added that workers labored for 10 hours a day underground, in heat of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), adding that there were a high number of fatal accidents in the mines.

Mathunjwa also disputed claims that the mine owners could not afford to pay workers more.

"Their salaries (those of the mine owners) are still huge, they are on bonuses...These platinum companies have been raking in millions," he said.

(Read more: Why it's time toturn bullish on miners)

On Monday, South Africa's finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, told local media that the country could ill afford further unrest and called for the platinum industry to peacefully resolve the situation.

The strike threat follows months of violent labor unrest at mines in 2012, which resulted in multiple fatalities and saw the country's credit rating downgraded by the major ratings agencies.

Platinum traded around 1.2 percent higher at $1,471.50 on Monday following news of the most recent strike notice — its highest level since last October. Gold and silver also traded higher.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the wage demanded by the miners is a per month figure.