Grape valley remains on tenterhooks

Around the vineyards of De Doorns in the Western Cape's seemingly idyllic Hex River Valley, farm workers were pruning bunches of tiny grapes in the searing heat this week.

While snipping the fruit with shears, a group of farm workers told the Mail & Guardian how they were content to be back at work, for now. They needed to earn money, they said. They were waiting in anticipation for December 4 when they expected the government to double the minimum wage of farm workers, which would push up their salaries to R150 a day.

There is an uneasy truce between the workers and the farmers. In the past weeks, rampaging strikers lit grass and started fires among the vines of many farms bordering the N1 highway.

The protests had started in De Doorns and quickly spread to 15 other towns in the Western Cape.

The older women working on the vines said they hated the unnecessary violence.

A 21-year-old farm worker, who asked not to be named for fear of losing her job, said some of the workers kept themselves updated on the strikes by using an application on their cellphones for a community chat website, That way they knew what was going to happen, when and where.

On November 9, a farm worker posted his frustrations: "Ek het dan gedink ons gaan 150 n dag kry maar nou hoor ons by die plaasmense dis net 70 rand, iemand moet uitgebrand word ons moet nou maar uitvind wie het gelieg vir ons." (I thought we would get R150 a day but now I found out it is just R70. Someone must be burnt out. We must find out who lied to us.)

Sectoral determination
Workers returned to their posts on Tuesday, following an agreement between their representatives, the government, representatives of farm bosses and other stakeholders.

They agreed to suspend the strike until December 4 on condition that the Employment Conditions Commission reconsiders the sectoral determination for agriculture.

In this sweeping valley it is not only the farm workers who are feeling insecure about salary increases. The farming community is clearly still shaken and is beefing up security, expecting another outbreak of violence if the government does not raise the prescribed wage for farm workers.

A labour consultant in De Doorns, Ronaldo van Hoogstraten, said most fruit farmers in the area paid more than the government's prescribed minimum wage of about R70 a day.

"Very few farmers work on the minimum rate and usually pay a higher rate, with incentive bonuses for productivity," he said.

It may appear that things are back to normal on the farms, but this is not the case. As one weary farmer, who was last week stoned by rampaging strikers who were rolling burning tyres on to his farm, kept repeating:  "Nothing will ever be normal again."

The charred vines and burnt grass banks are barely noticeable as you drive through the area, because the fires were quickly put out by farmers when the striking farm workers moved on to the next farm. But the anger of the farmers at the unprovoked attacks is growing.

The destruction of the farms caught the farmers by surprise and they are trying to speed up production to meet the demands for grapes, in some cases for the export market.

On the farm Van Dutiekraal in De Doorns, farm workers spoke about how they hoped to get paid R150 a day from December 4. There are three brothers and their families working and living on the farm, which has been in the family for three generations.

Forcibly dragged
A new security gate is being put up at the entrance to the farm. The 35-year-old farmer, Lucas Badenhorst, is still visibly shaken from his experience on November 5 when up to 5 000 strikers marched on the road below his family farm and set fire to his vineyards.

As Badenhorst tried to hose the flames from his tractor, people threw stones at him. In the crowd he saw some of his workers, who he says were forcibly dragged from their houses on the farm to join in the march.

"The strikers were moving along the road, lighting fires along the way," said Badenhorst. "The police said they couldn't protect us from a crowd like that if we kept trying to put the flames out. So I couldn't do anything. I just had to stand by and wait for 40 minutes for the crowd to move on. It was hell and it felt like forever."

The farmers hired a helicopter to watch the area and follow the movement of the strikers in De Doorns.

Badenhorst's wife, Anja, almost drove into the crowd when she set off for work on a neighbouring farm. The strikers began hitting her car. It was a miracle she managed to drive away, he said.

"After that I sent my wife and kids to Cape Town for their safety. I couldn't look after the farm and our workers if I was worrying about my wife and children."

On the road the Mail & Guardian met a group of farm workers that was heading into town on foot. The farmer had sent them home early because he did not want them to prune the grapes in the heat.

"If the government does not tell us on December 4 that the farmers have to pay us R150 a day, we will have to strike again," said an animated Thandiwe Ntsefe (30).

Public hearings
Her face was covered in a heavy red face pack that protects her from the sun. Pruning and picking grapes is backbreaking, said the workers, even for the young. A decent salary was what they wanted now.

"I have my children to feed and then there are school fees," said Ntsefe.  "Long before the end of the month I have no money left. We have no choice but to strike."

Trade union federation Cosatu and the People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty claimed that the farm owners in De Doorns were making attempts to ­create "anarchy, xenophobia and violent divisions among the community of workers", but farm workers alleged they all lived peacefully together. In November 2009, locals forced an estimated 3 000 foreigners, mostly Zimbabweans, out of Stofland and Ekuphumleni townships, in a resurgence of the xenophobic attacks that made headlines in 2008.

The labour department has announced that farm-sector public hearings will begin this week in the Western Cape. Titus Mtsweni, acting director for labour standards, said after the hearings the Employment Conditions Commission would make recommendations on wages and other conditions of employment to the minister, Mildred Oliphant.

If the government stipulated that farm workers had to be paid a minimum of R150 a day, Badenhorst said, it would mean that he would probably have to "close up shop".

Other farmers were already talking about selling their farms.

"At least 46% of my inset costs are just wages," said Badenhorst. "Double that up and I won't be able to sell my grapes. Nobody would buy them."

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