South Africa farm worker strike suspended until Jan. 9
Farm worker strikes in the Western Cape and across South Africa have been suspended until Jan. 9, following an agreement between labor union Cosatu and Agri SA.
- Farm-to-farm negotiations at the plant level.
- Negotiations considering a minimum wage increase to ZAR150 (US$17.11) a day.
- Negotiations on a profit-sharing scheme.
The agreement means workers will return to their regular employment until the deadline. If no definitive agreement is made by then, strikes are expected to resume.
As of Wednesday afternoon in South Africa, Agri SA had not released an official statement directly referring to the agreement. It did, however, urge the Minister of Police to prioritize farm safety and condemn criminal activity.
Following the agreement, Department of Labour Director General Nkosinathi Nhleko expressed concern over the lack of unionization in the farm sector.
“I think we should all be worried that there is very low union representation with figures showing that under 6 percent of farm workers belong to trade unions nationally. In the Western Cape figures hover around the 10 percent mark,’’ he said.
Cosatu said farm workers are free to join whichever union they please.
According to the government statement, the labor situation was still very hostile.
National strike threats
Prior to the agreement, Cosatu came out in favor of more widespread action and threatened to shut down South Africa’s international fruit trade.
Tuesday had been set as the original deadline to resolve vineyard strikes that broke out last month in the Hex River Valley. A government announcement that the deadline could not be met signaled a return to unrest.
Workers in the region have asked for a wage increase from the current minimum of ZAR70 (US$7.95) a day. An increase has been supported by both unions and farmer representatives, but politics and specifics have confused negotiations.
No national action could be confirmed Tuesday, despite speculation. At the time, Cosatu organizer Mike Louw told www.freshfruitportal.com, however, that a national strike "may even be in its embryonic stage now."
Louw criticized Agri SA for taking negotiations to a national level. The next public hearing had been scheduled for Thursday in the Limpopo province, removed from the heart of labor strikes.
Louw said the move forced Cosatu to communicate with workers across the country.
"We are suggesting that because Agri South Africa wants to have negotiations at a national level, which is essentially a Western Cape difficulty at the moment; we need to know that farm workers nationally are informed," he said.
From there, Louw said Cosatu could not control what would happen next.
Cosatu made biting critiques of Agri SA’s actions Monday, questioning the organization’s dedication to raise wages. It called Agri SA “old guard” and said it still wanted to perpetuate the “old boere ideas.”
The organization threatened to bring agriculture exporters to their knees if negotiations continued on the same path.
“We will now start speaking to our international contacts to advise them about the attitude of the farmers. This will mean that the farmers may be able to harvest their fruit, but no International country will buy it, and it will stand in there [sic] storerooms,” Cosatu said in an official statement.
“Given that the areas listed will soon be seen as pariahs in the international eyes, we will also ensure that the stevedores at the harbour do not handle the fruit from these regions.”
In a media release, Agri SA supported paying wages above the minimum level but questioned negotiation methods.
“In these circumstances agriculture and South Africa have to deal with a fundamental challenge: is pressure applied by means of anarchy the way by which disputes are to be resolved, irrespective of the longer term consequences thereof, or should a value based approach, respecting the rule of law, be the preferred option?” Agri SA said.
“Investors’ uncertainty about the way by which recent wage disputes in South Africa have been settled clearly demonstrates why Agri SA cannot see its way open to meet unrealistic demands within a short time frame to resolve differences.”
Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant commented early Tuesday on the possibility of nationwide action to support better pay and working conditions. She called for order in the case of further protest.
"Violence has no place in our society, whose foundation as a democracy is based on intensive social dialogue. Nothing yet has proven to work better than the ability to negotiate and reach consensus," Oliphant said in a media statement.