JOHANNESBURG - South African building workers began an indefinite strike on Wednesday that will halt work at stadiums for the 2010 World Cup, the biggest industrial action since new President Jacob Zuma took office in May.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said the action by about 70,000 workers would continue until employers gave in to their demand for a 13 percent pay rise. The companies have so far refused to go beyond 10 percent.
Escalating strike action is a major challenge for Zuma, who has to balance the demands of the union and leftist allies who helped bring him to office with keeping market-friendly policies at a time Africa's biggest economy suffers a recession.
NUM, South Africa's biggest trade union, said its members in the building sector would protest at construction sites for the stadiums and other major infrastructure projects. It said the action was indefinite.
"Our intention is to take it forever, so as long as the employers are not bringing what we want to the table," said union spokesman Lesiba Seshoka.
"We believe in our own power, we have the power to make people do the things we want them to do."
Although the strike will affect construction work at mines, it should not have a direct impact on production in the world's biggest producer of platinum.
South Africa's powerful COSATU trade union federation said it fully backed the strike.
"COSATU, and the construction workers, are as passionate about the 2010 World Cup as anyone, and will do everything possible to ensure its success. But we will not tolerate the stadiums being built by workers who are underpaid or working in dangerous or unhealthy conditions," it said in a statement.
Officials have said previously that the 10 stadiums for the World Cup, half of them new, will be delivered on target by December, although there have been some reports that the Green Point venue in Cape Town may be delayed into next year.
Shares in South African construction firms fell because of the uncertainty over how long the strike would last.
Companies likely to suffer include Africa's top construction firm Murray & Roberts Holdings Ltd, WBHO and Group Five.
South Africa's state-owned utility Eskom's 4,800 megawatt Medupi power station could also be affected, slowing efforts to fill a chronic power shortage in the country.
Expansion work on the coal export facility, Richards Bay Coal Terminal, could be delayed further, NUM said earlier this week.
Unions across sectors have demanded double-digit pay hikes as inflation declines at a slower pace that previously expected, after peaking above 13 percent in August last year.
The strikes have endangered key sectors and put pressure on Zuma to meet the demand for policies that favour the poor, but the government has little room for manoeuvre. He has so far neither bent to the union demands nor openly challenged them.