JOHANNESBURG, Dec. 8 -- Hundreds of workers at BHP Billiton's (BLT.L: Quote) (BHP.AX: Quote) aluminum smelter in South Africa went on strike on Wednesday, demanding better wages and changes in work conditions, a union official said.
About 600 workers downed tools at BHP's Billiton Hillside aluminum smelter at Richards Bay, in the country's KwaZulu Natal province, after talks with management failed, National Union of Metalworkers spokesman Mbuso Ngubane said.
The workers are demanding a 12 percent hike in wages across the board, and a 50 percent employer contribution to a medical aid scheme, among other things.
The union said it had been in talks with management since April this year.
BHP Billiton SA spokesman Johnny Dladla said in an e-mailed statement the company was open to further talks and that its offer of a 7.5 percent pay rise had been accepted by about 70 percent of the employees at the unit.
Hillside, with annual capacity of around 700,000 tonnes, is South Africa's major producer of aluminum.
Dladla said the company had put in place contingency plans to maintain production at the unit.
The union was expected to meet with management later on Wednesday.
"We are going (to the meeting) with an open mind, hopefully we may have an agreement by tomorrow," Ngubane said.
Africa's biggest economy has been hit by a wave of strikes and strike threats in both the private and public sector, which have led to above-inflation settlements and stoked fears that the cost of living will rise.
South Africa's inflation rate stood at 3.4 percent in October.