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Agri SA: Western Cape farmworkers' protest 'politically motivated'

Glynnis Underhill

As farm protests flare in the Western Cape grape valley, Agri SA president Johannes Moller considers the unrests to be 'politically motivated'.

As farm protests turned violent in the Western Cape, some blamed politics for the unrest. (David Harrison, M&G)

Johannes Möller said the Congress of South African Trade Union was just trying to shift the blame by accusing the union of impeding negotiations.

"Personally, I see the strike as politically motivated. There have been no farmworker strikes outside the Western Cape that I know about," he said.

"It is odd, because we agree that the minimum wage is quite low, and should be increased," Möller added. 

Talk of sanctions being called for against South African fruit was bizarre, as he said farming was already facing a financial and labour crisis.

Möller pointed out that some farmers were investigating turning to nut farming – as this operation was easier to mechanise – or switching to cattle farming, which requires reduced labour.

Bagraim: 'What is going down is politics'
"I think what is going down is politics. It is not actually the conditions and earnings on the farms. Many farmers are close to a settlement with their workers and 95% of grape farmers have already signed wage agreements," said Michael Bagraim, a labour analyst for the Cape Town Chamber of Commerce who is representing 20 farmers in the province.

"Most of them are paying R100 to R150 to even R200 a day. Everyone agrees that the current minimum wage is not acceptable."

Bagraim has been assisting farmers with wage agreements and negotiating terms of employment, housing and benefits for them.

Some farmers were talking about turning to farming ventures that will allow mechanism or lower staffing levels, he said, while others were considering moves to other countries in Africa with more favourable agricultural and labour conditions.

And Bagraim said not all his clients want to continue farming, as it is currently not a profitable business.  

So violent was the farmworkers’ strike – that began in November last year and continued into December – that one farmer is taking the insurance money he got paid out after his farm was burnt and vandalised, and quitting farming. 

'Wrong politics in the Western Cape’
Two of his clients are emerging black farmers, who cannot afford to hire security companies to protect them during strikes. They also cannot afford to pay the farm workers the R150 a day they are demanding, which is more than double the government's prescribed minimum wage.

Although Bagraim said he was not entirely sure why the farmworker strikes should be mostly Western Cape-based, he said there were factors that could be at play. "One factor is that there could be 'wrong politics' here in the Western Cape, with the Democratic Alliance in charge and not the African National Congress," he said.

While the government is set to adjust the minimum daily wage for farmworkers of R69.39 from April 1, farmworker Deneco Dube – who works on a fruit farm in Robertson –  told the Mail & Guardian the workers could not wait any longer for improvements to their impoverished situation.

Grabouw in the Elgin Valley saw the first signs of the anticipated labour unrest on Wednesday. The strikes soon spread to other areas, including De Doorns in the Hex River Valley, which erupted into running battles between police and farm workers.

More than politics
Dube said the strikes were simply a necessity, even though the police presence was strong in Robertson on the first day of the strikes.  "The strikes are not being organised by anyone. It has nothing to do with the Democratic Alliance running the province. It is about the workers and their feelings,” Dube said.

“Our living conditions and wages are terrible. We decided to stand up as for many years we have struggled to get by. We can't wait for the government to make its decisions as our children are suffering," Dube added. 

His salary is currently R80 a day, and he said by mid-week he has already run out of money. 

Activist Mercia Andrews, who is currently working with a number of organisations affiliated to the Farm Workers Coalition – which is coordinating the strikes – said most farm workers in the Western Cape were indebted to loan sharks as they were not paid a living wage.

Cosatu condemns violence
Cosatu has condemned the violence that saw media coming under attack on Wednesday in De Doorns.

Cosatu's provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich describes the farmworkers’ situation as an "escalating time bomb waiting to blow up" and points to their extreme dissatisfaction with working conditions and pay. 

Ehrenreich describes his own role in the strikes as one of support for the workers, as most of them are not members of unions and points out this strike lacks clear leadership. During the last year’s farmworkers' strike it was Ehrenreich who called off the strike.

Addressing about 300 farm workers on a field in De Doorns, he encouraged workers to unionise or organise in collective bargaining bodies and negotiate directly with their employers.

The farmers were armed to the hilt with security, he explained, and he did not want workers to get hurt. While he said he risked losing credibility by calling off the strike, Ehrenreich said he would not be able to do it again.

Negotiation talks
"As from November 5 last year, the farm workers have taken action on their own. They asked Cosatu to assist and to give structure to negotiations with Agri SA and with government. The workers said talks had broken down."

Sixteen towns had been shut down in the Western Cape last year due to strikes, said Ehrenrich. "I am on the side of the workers. These are exploited, undermined people and injured workers. Cosatu hasn't called for a strike as only 6% of workers in the agricultural industry are organised," he said.

“There is historical hostility of farmers to unions and they fire workers who want to be part of unions. They are not our members and the strikes are happening spontaneously."

Nhleko as a possible mediator
Having held three days of intense meetings, labour department director general Advocate Nkosinathi Nhleko sounded exhausted on Tuesday – the day before the strike was scheduled to begin. A strike had probably not been averted, he conceded.  

Nhleko, who has served in many roles in Parliament and former ANC chief whip, is considered an able facilitator. "We now have to take stock of the amount of progress we have made. It has transpired that there are some differences with regards to the individual farm negotiations.

“As the Department of Labour, we have been trying to facilitate discussions and we held meetings last week, yesterday and today," he said.

"We have thrown ideas up for consideration and the route to take might be to facilitate talks under the auspices of the Department of Labour's Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration facilities."

 


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