Western Cape farm workers reject unions

At the first public meeting of the new Farm Worker Forum, nearly
1 000 farm workers gathered to condemn the recent violent strikes and the union leaders claiming to represent workers. Denene Erasmus reports.

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Nearly two months after the labour unrest in the Western Cape farming sector first erupted, farm workers have finally found their own voice. A group opposed to the violence that has characterised the strike action by workers demanding the minimum wage be increased from R69/day to R150/day has come together to form the Farm Worker Forum (FWF).

One of the forum’s conveners, farm worker Rita Andreas, from Bosman Family Vineyards in Wellington, said the FWF already enjoyed the support of most farms in the Berg River municipal area, which included towns like Wellington and Paarl, while support in other regions was growing fast. “In future this forum is going to be a mouthpiece for the farm workers,” said Andreas. “It will give them the opportunity to represent themselves.”

The FWF’s next step will be to meet with producers to discuss an increased minimum wage, but it deplores the strikes, said Andreas. “We as workers do believe that the R69/day minimum wage is too low but, at the same time, we want to make it quite clear that many farm workers in the Western Cape earn more than that, and they also enjoy many other benefits provided by farmers, including housing, schools for their children and training,” she said.

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Unions rejected
At the forum’s first mass public meeting on 22 January in Wellington, more than 1 000 farm workers showed up, brandishing posters saying that farm workers will no longer tolerate being represented by unions that enjoyed little support in the farm worker community and condemning the acts of violence committed by those taking part in the strikes. “We all agree R70/ day isn’t enough, but to burn property and plunder and loot is not the solution,” said Magrieta Futhwa, a farm worker from Middelpos Farm in Wellington and FWF spokesperson.

“We asked nobody to speak for us. We do not need Nosey and Tony to speak for us. We do not need unions. That is why we established the forum – so that we can speak for ourselves,” she told the cheering crowd. Futhwa was referring to Bawusa leader Nosey Pieterse and Tony Ehrenreich, the provincial secretary of Cosatu for the Western Cape, who many claim are driving the protests in the province.

Seasonal workers to blame
Meanwhile, FWF’s Ockert Diedericks, a farm worker from Welgemoed Farm in Wellington, told Farmer’s Weekly that it was mainly seasonal workers and the unemployed who were taking part in the strikes. He said that some of the violent acts that had been committed, such as the burning and destruction of farms and infrastructure, should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Diedericks also said the strikes were jeopardising the good relationships that existed between most permanent farm workers and their employers, many of whom lived on farms. “We need to nurture the relationship between farmers and workers,” he said. “When the harvest season is over, seasonal workers go back to where they came from and we stay behind to deal with the broken relationships between farmers and workers that was caused by the actions of seasonal labourers.”

Strike suspended
The day after the first public meeting of the FWF, Cosatu’s Ehrenreich released a statement saying the farm worker minimum wage strikes had been suspended for the time being. However, he said  Cosatu in the Western Cape would be calling for the union to co-ordinate a national strike against “AgriSA and its bad members.” Said Ehrenrich: “We may be encouraging workers to go back to work now, but the struggle in agriculture will intensify for decent wages, good conditions on farms and land reform.

“It will be done with the guidance and leadership of Cosatu at a national level, following the appropriate legal procedures. It will be a peaceful protest that will see all sectors of Cosatu supporting agricultural workers.” Ehrenreich said the unions should continue to negotiate at farm level, to ensure that the workers received a fair slice of what they produced through their hard work, adding that the unions were more active and better organised now, with thousands of workers having joined them during the strikes.