Cosatu warns of renewed farmworker strikes

SA is in the grip of strike season, but the Western Cape agricultural sector, the scene of violent strikes late last year and early this year, has not reported any strikes.

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Cosatu Western Cape provincial leader Tony Ehrenreich warned there may be strikes in the agriculture sector, as well as a generalised strike if socio-economic issues were not addressed. Agri Western Cape CEO Carl Opperman said there were currently no strikes or farm action in the industry. “There are a number of department of labour inspectors on farms. There is also a lot of activity on farms by a particular trade union, which is sending out misinformation to workers,” he said.

Speaking after a weekend summit of national leaders of alliance partners, which included the ANC and the SA Communist Party, Cosatu national spokesperson Patrick Craven said alliance partners had agreed “that farm workers were exploited and underpaid and needed to take action to improve living conditions and labour relations on farms.” The alliance came out in support of a higher national minimum wage.

“This would affect farm workers and underpaid workers in the most vulnerable sectors,” said Craven. Unions did not agree on a proposed minimum wage and the matter was referred to a task team. Craven said the minimum daily farm worker wage of R105 was low and that lessons could be learnt from the Western Cape strikes.

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“Only about 5% of farmworkers are trade union members. Unions must get closer to workers. It’s important that workers join trade unions because although spontaneous action can achieve short term benefits, it can be difficult to sustain. Without unions to keep up the pressure, employers can claw back gains workers have made,” Craven said.

Statistics from the South African Institute of Race Relations show an increasingly violent nature of strikes in South Africa, with 181 people killed in strike violence, 313 people injured and 3 058 people arrested in strikes during the past 13 years.
Violent industrial action at Astral’s Earlybird Olifantsfontein processing operation and County Fair poultry farms in January cost the companies R37 million in total.

Prof Alan Rycroft, chair of commercial law at UCT said, “In South Africa, unions don’t pay a strike wage, so striking workers lose salary. This has a dire effect, especially on people who, for example, have hire purchase agreements. Strikers resort to violence to put pressure on employers because they can’t sustain a long strike.”

In addition, SA had no real culture of problem- solving and negotiation. “Parties get locked into negotiations based not on interest but on position – and positions are far apart. Workers fixate on a figure, for example at Marikana they asked for R12 500/month, and believe the only way to get it is through violence,” said Rycroft.

Data from the SAIRR’s South Africa Survey indicated that in 2001, the agricultural sector employed 969 000 people, which declined by 34% to 638 000 in 2012. The data also showed that in 2001, a total of 7,8% of South Africa’s workforce was employed in agriculture; by 2012 this figure had declined to 4,7%. In May this year minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson said jobs in the sector had grown to 739 000.