No agreement between workers’ unions and farmers

Representatives of organised agriculture have advised farmers to not become worried when workers decide to join unions, but advised them to get well acquainted with what the law stipulated in terms of union activities on farms.

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Anton Rabe, the chairperson of Agri SA’s labour committee told Farmer’s Weekly that the involvement of unions on farms could be a positive thing for workers and farmers, if unions truly had the workers’ best interests at heart. He said the law was clear about under which conditions unions were awarded organisational and bargaining rights and that any attempt by union representatives to simply show up on a farm, without a prior appointment, demanding access to financial statements would be unlawful.

According to Rabe, Act 66 of 1995 on Labour Relations stated that, in terms of the rights of unions, organisational rights applied only when a union represented 25% or more of the entire work force on a farm, and bargaining rights applied if the union represented 50% plus one of the work force. Organisational rights included that union representatives should be allowed access to the farm, by appointment, to consult with members or to recruit new members.

However, certain limitations still applied, for example: meetings should not be held during working hours, but rather after hours or during lunch breaks. Bargaining rights give union representatives the right to appoint “shop stewards” on the farm who can then represent workers in wage and employment condition negotiations. In terms of the right of union representatives to demand access to financial statements, Rabe said if the trade union represented the majority of workers they may be entitled to certain information that was deemed necessary for the union to enable them to negotiate service conditions.

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But the employer reserves the right to withhold confidential information from trade unions. Meanwhile Agri SA said it has not entered into an agreement with unions claiming to represent all farm workers in the Western Cape in on-going wage negotiations. 

Western Cape provincial secretary of the trade union federation, Cosatu, Tony Ehrenreich, who has played a central role in farm worker protests in the Western Cape during November and December 2012, recently released a statement in which he claimed that Agri SA has committed to certain resolutions, including that wage negotiations shout be held at farm level and that these negotiations would deal with the workers’ demand for a R150 per day minimum wage, as well a profit-sharing schemes.

“Unions will negotiate with the farmers on the different farms. If no agreement is reached by 9 January 2013, workers on those farms will revert to taking action again by this date,” said Ehrenreich. But Agri SA has strongly denied Ehrenreich’s claims saying that “any announcement of a settlement or agreement would amount to a viewpoint adopted without the knowledge and consent of Agri SA.”

Agri SA said in a statement that no agreement was reached regarding any minimum wage level. “It remained each farmer’s right to negotiate with workers regarding any remuneration in excess of the minimum wage based on his particular circumstances.”
According to Agri SA it was also not agreed that trade unions could act as intermediaries in respect of wage negotiations at farm level, nor was it agreed that “a farmer should ‘open’ his books for workers and trade union representatives should he be unable to meet wage expectations.”

Furthermore, Agri SA said they were never consulted on the date of 9 January 2013 by which wage negotiations at farm level should be completed.