Opinion: understanding South Africa's farm strikes

Most Read Opinion Top Stories
Opinion: understanding South Africa's farm strikes

By Porchia Adams, corporate communications manager at Agri Wes-Cape

A brief perspective on agriculture in the Western Cape, Republic of South Africa

Agriculture in the Western Cape Province currently contributes around 4% to the GDP, but is one of the primary economic drivers of the province, producing between 55-60% of South Africa’s agricultural exports. With a diverse spectrum of commodities such as deciduous and citrus fruit, viticulture, vegetables, animal products, including wool, dairy, ostrich, grain crops, flowers and fynbos, tea and some smaller commodity sectors such as olives, nuts and berries produced in the province, the agriculture sector in the Western Cape provides a unique product offer to the market.

Produce is predominantly exported to the U.K., U.S.A., and European and Asian countries.


Commodities such as fruit, wine, dairy, meat, wool, vegetables, fynbos and indigenous tea require physical labor, making the Western Cape agricultural sector very labor intensive and a huge contributor to employment in the country. The sector employs about 85,000 permanent farm workers and an additional 108,000 seasonal workers during peak production cycles.

The recent spike of labor unrest is unusual and many questions arose as to the legitimacy of the participants (some of whom were identified as people not working on farms) and the agendas of the leaders involved. Controversial statements from political and labor union leaders led to irresponsible and unlawful behavior of strikers.

The nature of the strikes caused the sector to re-evaluate their risks, not only in terms of seasonal labor, but also in terms of vulnerability during critical production cycles. Farming practices cannot afford to lose any opportunity to generate income because single-commodity farms have but one chance per year to do so. However, expenses for the rest of the year have to be funded from this income, including salaries of workers.

The destructive influence of labor unions, as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, plays a major role in this evaluation. It must be understood that farm workers have a right to labor representation of their choice and they are aware of their rights. At the moment unions represent less than 5% of farm workers in the province.

Cosatu (Coalition of South African Trade Unions) and its affiliates accuse farmers of denying them access to farms, but what unions fail to understand is that farms are places of work, like any other business, and that the correct procedures in terms of access to workplaces are also relevant on farms. What makes agriculture unique is that the place of work is also where many workers reside.

The formulation of worker’s forums on farms in the Western Cape is common practice and especially permanent workers have over the years developed these forums to represent them in any labor and other issues they might have.

Affordability vs. reality

The demands for higher wages for the lowest skilled farm workers have to be seen in context of a few realities. On average, there are about 15 different job categories on farms, depending on the range of farming practices. Should the lowest paid worker’s salary sharply increase, the rest of the salary scales will also have to be adapted accordingly.

This makes any drastic changes completely unaffordable, especially given the fact that salaries are budgeted for in advance and on the prospect of an expected income from produce sales.

According to an agricultural survey by Statistics SA in 2011, the Gross Farming Income (GFI) of South Africa’s agriculture sector increased by a mere 7.3%, whereas the expenditure for the same period increased significantly, e.g. fuel (12.9%), maintenance and repairs (11.3%).

The total farming debt, excluding mortgages, increased by as high as 23%. The additional expenses such as housing, electricity, transport, education, medical costs, pensions, etc., which forms part of the total cost to company salary packages that farm workers receive, has not been calculated yet.

Do the strikes negatively affect exports?

The cumulative damage to vineyards, orchards and infrastructure amounts to between ZAR120 million (US$13.875 million) to ZAR150 million (US$17.347 million), compared to the value of the agricultural sector in the province that amounts to ZAR44 billion (US$5.1 billion).

Farm workers are back on the farms and working consistently to harvest crops for the market. We are positive that there will be no significant negative effect in terms of delivery and that everyone directly involved in the farming industry understands the importance of a productive harvesting season.

Where to from here

It is absolutely essential that we build a stronger agricultural sector, given the fact that agriculture

  • - is a major economic driver, especially in rural areas of the Western Cape.
  • - has the potential to generate additional employment, especially in the light of the steep employment targets in the recently launched National Development Plan of South Africa.
  • - ensures food security for a growing provincial, national and world population.

Malicious acts by unlawful citizens of destroying crops and farming infrastructure and irresponsible threats of preventing produce from being transported to markets, and the call for banning of Western Cape produce by political leaders and labor unions like we’ve seen in the last few weeks cannot be tolerated.

The majority of South Africans want to build this beautiful country and see it develop to its full potential, and the agricultural sector in the Western Cape is committed to contribute significantly to this goal.


Subscribe to our newsletter