As violent protests broke out in the Western Cape grape valley, the labour department has called for mediation between farmers and workers.
Farmers and workers in the Western Cape appear to be speaking past each other on the subject of a minimum wage. The department of labour has now recommended the parties resort to mediation in order to find each other.
“We suggested they take on a mediator to listen to all the parties. Now they’ve gone back to consult with their constituencies,” said labour department spokesperson Musa Zondi.
Zondi said both sides in the dispute had to show a commitment to negotiation and be open to hearing each other’s circumstances and needs. “That’s a conversation that’s not happening at the moment,” he said.
“Our priority is to get South Africa working. But it is also to ensure decent work conditions where one can belong to their union of choice and exercise their rights,” he said, adding that at the same time the department does not want to see more jobs shed unnecessarily.
Unrest broke out among table grape harvesters late last year, culminating in violent protests across 16 towns, in which two people died.
Crops were torched and warehouses set on fire. Workers, who earn between R69 and R75 a day, demanded a wage of R150 a day but farmers said this was unsustainable.
Protest turned violent
In early December the parties agreed to hold farm-by-farm negotiations in an attempt to resolve the impasse with the understanding that the strikes would resume on January 9, if no agreement was reached.
Earlier this week government called for workers to “exercise their right to protest peacefully, legally and within the ambit of the law” but the strike action on Wednesday quickly turned violent.
On Wednesday protestors blocked a highway, lit tyres in streets and stoned and set vehicles alight. Police are reported to have fired stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.
South African Police Service (SAPS) spokesperson Andrè Traut said 44 people had been arrested and charged with intimidation and public violence.
He said the SAPS hoped there would be no further violence, but added: “We are ready to deal with any recurrence whatsoever. We’ll be deployed in high numbers and we’ll maintain law and order.”
Farmers failed to meet obligations
Sandile Keni, Western Cape organiser for the Food and Allied Workers Union, said farmers had failed to meet their obligations to negotiate.
“We are trying our best as unions but it seems as though the employers are not willing to negotiate with us,” he said.
According to Keni, unions were expecting a response from farmers to their demands on Tuesday but none was forthcoming.
“This shows us they don’t respect the workers and they’re not respecting unions as well. The time or arrogance has come and gone. As unions we’re more than willing to negotiate. Let those who are willing come to the table,” he said.
Keni said that protestors would gather in De Doorns again on Thursday.
“If there isn’t something on the table, if they don’t even want to come to the table, how can workers call off the strike?” he said.
“‘The struggle continues,’ this is what workers are saying. We are not going to back down.”
There is 'scope for negotiation'
But Johannes Möller, president of Agri SA, which represents farmers, said there was a danger that the agriculture sector could become unsustainable if wages got out of control.
“The profit margins in agricultural are not great – it’s a simple fact,” he said.
Möller said that while there is “scope for negotiation”, farmers are already hard pressed to make ends meet.
“Even a R10 increase in wages, in many aspects, has a massive effect on the sustainability of operations for many farms,” he added.
He said the current labour uncertainty in the agricultural sector is forcing farmers to consider new operations elsewhere; a possible change in commodities or even mechanisation.
“Mechanisation is starting to look attractive to many farmers as it is reliable and a far easier option to maintain production discipline,” Möller added.
'Workers are being used as cannon fodder'
A wave of illegal strikes in the mining sector last year threatened both investor confidence and the collective bargaining process, and rang alarm bells for economists.
Chris Hart, chief economist at Investment Solutions, said that a raise in wages would not necessarily have the effect workers hoped for.
“Unless there is a massive jump in productivity when you raise wages, the number of people employed will decrease – that’s basic economics,” Hart said.
Hart said that the type of strike action seen recently in the agriculture and mining sectors were dangerous.
All photos by David Harrison.