Emerging farmers hardest hit by wage strikes

Black fruit farmers in the Western Cape say that if the ongoing unrest is not resolved soon, many of them will be ruined. Denene Erasmus reports.

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The latest wave of labour unrest by striking farm workers in the Western Cape, who are demanding an increase of the minimum wage from R69/day to R150/day, has threatened to affect the livelihood of fruit farmers as the strikes are taking place at harvest time. Recently, a group of emerging fruit farmers spoke out, saying that many of them could lose everything if the matter was not resolved soon.

A fair wage
The Deciduous Fruit Development Chamber (DFDC) represents more than 200 emerging fruit farmers throughout South Africa, with 80% of them based in the Western Cape. Many of its members were economically marginal farmers, said DFDC spokesperson Ismail Motala.

“In the Western Cape, more than 95% of black farmers in the fruit industry struggle economically. Therefore, we must factor the effect of the wage increase on black farmers,” he said. “I’m confident that almost all the black farmers in the fruit industry in the Western Cape will stop farming if the minimum wage increases to R150 per day. Unfortunately, this is a reality and not a way of saying that we must not pay workers a living wage.”

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Motala declined to answer directly to a question from Farmer’s Weekly on what a fair increase in the minimum wage would be. Instead, he referred to a report compiled by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) containing an analysis of the farm-level impact of incremental increases in the minimum wage for selected industries.

Quoting the report, Motala said the cause of the current labour unrest was not only the minimum wage, but rural poverty and unemployment. “The strikes are about more than wages. Not only will we have to change the way we do business in agriculture, but we desperately need development in rural areas so we can address the socio-economic challenges facing the people living there,” he said.

The report shows that even at an apparently unaffordable minimum wage of R150 per day, most households could not afford enough essential nutrition. Motala said that if farmers were to absorb an unprecedented minimum wage increase and remain sustainable, they would have to approach government about receiving better support, such as a labour or inputs subsidy.

Violence & boycotts
Motala also condemned the manner in which the strikes had been conducted. “The violence, intimidation and lawlessness that have characterised the wage strikes need to stop, so that all the affected parties can resume discussion in an atmosphere where everyone is comfortable,” he said. “You cannot enter into these discussions when there is a gun to your head.”

Motala added that any call to boycott agricultural products would affect black farmers severely. “Calls for a boycott of South African fruit and wine are naïve and short- sighted. If you want to hurt the black fruit farmers in the Western Cape, then call for a boycott,” he said.

Motala warned that the continued labour unrest could cost South Africa valuable international market share. “If the strikes continue unabated, then we would have international customers becoming jittery and moving to our competitors in South America,” he said.

Motala expressed concern over trade union Cosatu’s call for a sympathy strike by port workers, saying that such a strike would have far- reaching implications. “Most of the emerging black farmers whom we represent have a limited amount of product, and they also have limited market access. “If we see a sympathy strike of this type taking place, I believe most of the black farmers in the Western Cape fruit industry will have to close shop within the next four months,” he said.

Fingers pointed at Unions
Motala also criticised the unions for not playing a more active role in rural communities, saying that they should not get involved only when there was a strike. The chairperson of the chamber, Walter Williams, iterated Motala’s sentiments, emphasising that the strike needed to end soon as it was harvest time for fruit farmers in the Western Cape. “The fruit is hanging ripe on the trees – it needs to be harvested now,” he said. “There is only a small window period during which we can harvest and if we fail to get the fruit in due to the strikes, many farmers will have no income and face financial ruin.”