* Mine workers return as state miner starts paying salaries
* Strike exposed miner’s frailties despite lofty ambitions
* Gecamines says $160 mln needed for 6,000 redundancies (Adds union confirmation payments begun)
By Peter Jones
KINSHASA, June 24 (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo state mining firm Gecamines has started paying workers unpaid wages, prompting striking miners in the copper-rich Katanga province to begin returning to work, Chief Executive Officer Ahmed Kalej Nkand said.
Workers in Kolwezi, one of three Gecamines production hubs in Congo’s southeast, went on strike last week, saying they had not been paid in three months, undermining the company’s aspirations to again become a major independent copper producer.
“We have started to pay back the workers and they are returning to their posts,” Kalej Nkand told Reuters by telephone, without saying how many months’ salary had been paid.
Jackie Makong, head of the workers’ union delegation that negotiated the end of the strike, confirmed Gecamines had started paying workers, though the sums involved did not amount to a months’ pay.
“To start by just paying our salaries is not enough, they need to do more to pay us what we are owed,” Makong told Reuters by telephone. “But we know that to be paid, we need to produce, so we have gone back to work.”
Kalej Nkand said Gecamines - also holder of a stake in a venture called Kamoto Copper Co majority owned by Glencore Plc - had launched a programme to make up for production lost during the strike, without giving any further details.
At its peak in the 1980s, Gecamines produced nearly 500,000 tonnes of copper a year, but that figure was down to 35,000 tonnes by 2012, a result of years of war, corruption and mismanagement.
Some analysts say the company is likely to struggle to raise the cash needed to finance its investment plan, which also envisages shedding half its 12,000 workers. “Now we need to let go another 6,000,” Kalej Nkand said, adding that the plan would cost some $160 million.
Makong said Gecamines needed revamping but the union would not allow workers to lose out in the process.
“Gecamines has to restructure, it is a reality. We have many workers who are eligible for retirement. But as trade unionists we cannot accept that (Gecamines) retires these people without giving them money,” she said. (Reporting by Pete Jones; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by David Holmes)