Minister calls farmers to the table

Jan 11 2013 14:05
Farmworker protest

(Picture: TSU-Helivac)

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Johannesburg - Farmers must come to the negotiation table to help end the violent strike by Western Cape farmworkers, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant said on Friday.

"I am not convinced that there is a serious attempt by farmers to negotiate," said Oliphant in a statement.

"I would also like to call on the farmers to engage their workers on the best way forward. At the end of the day, the main thing is negotiation between employer and employee."

Police continued patrols on the N1 at De Doorns on Friday ahead of talks between farmers and unions, following violent protests earlier in the week.

The national road, which remained closed to traffic, was quiet as rocks, glass and spent rubber bullet casings littered the road following running clashes between officers and protesters the previous two days.

On Thursday, police used a water cannon and fired rubber bullets and stun grenades in an attempt to disperse thousands of strikers who pelted them with stones on the N1 in De Doorns.

The strike by seasonal workers to have their minimum R69 daily wage increased to R150 - which began on August 27 last year, and was called off on December 4 - resumed on Wednesday.

Oliphant said that there needed to be "exemplary" leadership among the strikers to curb the violence.

"While farmworkers have every right to demonstrate, violence destroys their cause."

The talks between individual farmers and unions were expected to take place near the town later on Friday.

She said that the current strike action was "unprocedural" and therefore the workers were not protected by law.

"They [labour leaders] have to think carefully about what they are exposing workers to, and whether in the end [if] it is worth their while."

Dozens of people have been arrested since the violence flared up again this week.

A total of 271 workers were arrested for public violence during November's strikes, the labour ministry said.

There was also damage to property and at the time, farmers hired private security to protect their land.

Oliphant said that her Director-General Nkosinathi Nhleko's recent attempt to broker a peace deal was thwarted by the farm owners' representatives.

She said at the time, farming association Agri-SA declared it did not have a mandate to negotiate, and also felt the demands were "unrealistic" and would lead to financial problems for farmers.

"At the same time, farmers in the Western Cape have not been forthcoming in terms of putting a counter offer on the table."

Oliphant said farm owners were instead insisting on a sectoral determination process. 

Previously the process set the minimum wage for farmworkers at R69 a day.

However, at the beginning of this year, the minister was approached by workers' representatives, who said that not enough people were canvassed in the Western Cape when determining this figure.

Ministerial spokesman Musa Zondi said that from next week, new hearings would be held for anyone interested in discussing the minimum wage in the agricultural sector.

"It's a process of give and take," said Zondi.

He said that while there was a "sense" that R69 appeared to be too low, it also should be remembered that the figure was not "thumb sucked" by the minister but, rather, had been determined after a thorough process.

On Friday, the Cape Orchards Company (COC) representing 12 farms in De Doorns agreed to the talks with, among others, the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) and the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of SA (Bawusa).

Cosatu Western Cape secretary Tony Ehrenreich said these were considered separate talks with individuals rather than settlements which could be implemented across the sector.

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