By Ed Cropley and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African police deployed additional officers to the platinum belt on Tuesday to protect miners returning to work this week, a police spokesman said, as producers pushed ahead with plans to end the country's longest and most costly strike.
The four-month strike has halted 40 percent of normal global platinum production and dented already sluggish growth in Africa's most advanced economy.
Thulani Ngubane, the main police spokesman in the platinum mining town of Rustenburg northwest of Johannesburg, said police had set up park-and-ride facilities around the platinum mines to handle the arrivals.
It is unclear how many workers will be coming back but the three big platinum firms say a majority of the 70,000 strikers they have contacted directly want to end the strike.
"We are prepared for any eventuality," Ngubane said, although he said it would be difficult to provide security for the miners in the shanty towns that ring the main mines. Four miners have been killed in the area over the last three days.
Members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) have been on strike at Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin since January pressing for higher wages but talks have gone nowhere.
Lonmin has said it expects more miners to start returning to work on Wednesday after it made its wage offer directly to employees, sidestepping AMCU.
Implats was still conducting an SMS vote on its offer, which was expected to be concluded on Tuesday, and Amplats also said its workers wanted to return to work
"The main reason they are not coming to work is because they are being intimidated," Amplats spokeswoman Mpumi Sithole said.
She said the company had provided bus vouchers to its employees in the Eastern Cape province, where many miners have their homes, to return to Rustenburg and most of them had gone back.
The producers say the strike has to date cost them 17 billion rand ($1.64 billion) in lost revenues and employees have lost nearly 8 billion rand of earnings.
AMCU's leaders maintain that most of their striking members are not happy with the latest offer of up to 10 percent.
The companies say that would raise the overall minimum pay package to 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month by July 2017, including cash allowances for things like housing, but AMCU says this is not enough.
"We have remained so far apart. A deal with AMCU at this point in time seems completely out of the question," Amplats chief executive Chris Griffith told private radio station Talk Radio 702.
Griffith added that most Amplats miners wanted to return to work.
AMCU had initially demanded an immediate increase to 12,500 rand in the basic wage, excluding allowances, but softened that in March to staggered increases that would amount to 12,500 rand within three or four years - still a third more than what the companies are offering in basic salaries.
($1 = 10.3782 South African Rand)