By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Chief executives of the world's top platinum producers were to again meet the leaders of the AMCU union on Tuesday for wage talks in a bid to find an agreement to end the longest and most costly strike on South Africa's mines in living memory.
"They will be meeting this morning but at an undisclosed location," said a spokeswoman for the producers.
Around 70,000 members of the hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) downed tools 13 weeks ago at Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin.
Initially demanding an immediate doubling of the basic wage - the salary before various allowances are added such as housing - for entry-level workers to 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month, AMCU has since said it would accept annual increases of around 30 percent that would reach this goal in three years' time.
The producers' latest offer, made last Thursday, was for wage hikes of up to 10 percent and other increases which would take the minimum pay package - the basic wage including the allowances - to 12,500 rand a month by July 2017.
"That is as much as we can reasonably afford at this time," Implats spokesman Johan Theron told Reuters.
The companies have been struggling to maintain margins in the face of steeply rising costs on one hand and stubbornly depressed prices on the other for the precious metal used to build emissions-capping catalytic converters in automobiles.
Tuesday's talks were being facilitated by the country's department of labor but there has been little political intervention to resolve the dispute even though it is a headache for President Jacob Zuma and the ruling ANC with a general election looming May 7.
Exacerbating the industry's woes is the muted price reaction to the stoppage despite its scale, with around 40 percent of global platinum production idled at the moment, according to estimates by Thomson Reuters' GFMS.
Traders have bet there are adequate above-ground stocks and demand remains far from robust in key markets such as Europe, where diesel engines which require high platinum content in converters are favored.
The metal's spot price is currently fetching about 1,408.00 an ounce, around three percent lower than it was on the eve of the walk out which began on January 23.
At the same time, the producers' viability is being shaken by the strike. The producers have lost 14.2 billion rand ($1.35 billion) to date and counting since it began, according to an industry web site which constantly updates the tally (http://www.platinumwagenegotiations.co.za/).
This state of affairs is seen hastening a painful restructuring in the sector which could see thousands of jobs cut and more platinum taken out of production, with much of the focus on Amplats' operations around the mining town of Rustenburg northwest of Johannesburg.
Workers have lost around 6.3 billion rand in wages so far and their resolve could be weakening as they go their third consecutive month without a pay check.
Mineworkers in South Africa on average support eight dependants. This fuels their wage demands but also makes it hard for their households to go for long without their income.
AMCU shop steward Siphamandla Makhanya told Reuters as far as the union was concerned, the employers' latest package was "not the final offer" and so it did not immediately plan to take it to members for a vote.
($1 = 10.4977 South African Rand)
(Additional reporting by Zandi Shabalala; Editing by Louise Heavens)