Betty Fortuin, with more sadness and frustration than anger, said: “We’re not fighting the farmers, we need them, they need us, we must work together… but they must see our needs.”
What if the farmers cannot afford to pay you more? They say they do not make enough money, I point out.
“I don’t believe they can’t afford to pay us more, they are rich,” said Elsbeth, Betty’s friend. “I grew up on farms, they always have lots of groceries, they buy so much meat that they have to keep it in the freezer and it’s old and doesn’t have any taste when they eat it.”
Other evidence of the wealth of farmers is their ability to pay cash for their cars and to send their children to university.
Among the farmers in the Hex Valley, there are no signs of the excessive opulence that is so often associated with the lifestyles of executives of JSE-listed companies. But for Betty, Elsbeth and the thousands of seasonal workers protesting in the region, wealth is relative and to them the farmers appear rich enough to afford the increase to R150 a day.
But there is also an absolute dimension to the situation facing workers who are paid between R69 and R80 a day. “The money is too little, we also have to shop at Shoprite and Spar, we have to pay the same price as rich people, there aren’t cheaper shops for us,” Fortuin told Business Report.
But is this the problem for farmers who are operating in an environment with such a massive surplus of labour that the “market-clearing” rate might be lower than R69 a day.
Individual farmers are reluctant to talk to the media and AgriSA, which speaks on their behalf, remains committed to the view that the increasingly violent strike action is not just about pay.
“Other factors include, among others, a strive for competing unions to get a foothold in agriculture, tension between the work status of Lesotho and Zimbabweans due to a differentiated position by the government in this regard, the mobilising of unemployed and persons unrelated to the issue for political gain and unsatisfactory service delivery by local government structures in the informal sector.”
This view is repeated by trade union Solidarity, which says that the unrest “is not really a strike”.
It certainly is the case that permanent farm workers, who generally live on the farm and enjoy better conditions than the seasonal workers, are not involved in the unrest except to the extent that they are prevented from working because of intimidation.
And there is some evidence of opportunistic politics at play.
But to dismiss the unrest as the work of politically motivated vandals is to ensure that next year or the year after we will again be looking at scenes of burning tyres and spent cartridges on barricaded roads.
The issue of precisely what the farmers can afford involves a complex interaction of financial factors and labour market considerations.
From a financial perspective, what the farmers can afford requires an analysis of the marginal productivity of the seasonal workers. If the income generated for the farmer by the seasonal workers does not exceed R150 a day then no amount of reviewing the minimum wage will secure employment at that level.
If it does exceed R150 then protests and government involvement may be one way of otherwise powerless workers securing a greater share of their productivity.
The affordability issue should be seen in the context of the farmers selling 4.5kg boxes of grapes to European supermarket chains for around R45 a box. Tesco and Waitrose, which are two of the major UK retailers, are selling grapes at £4.50 (R62.98) a kilogram. This is equivalent to approximately R315 for the box sold by the South African farmer for R45.
This year’s weaker rand may provide some support for local farmers but the buying power of the major European retailers and growing competition from China and South America ensure that local farmers are price takers.
The local farmers are also facing steep increases in input costs such as electricity and oil. Just as Betty Fortuin has to pay increasing electricity charges and her friends in the squatter camp are having to pay much more for their kerosene.
But even if it emerged that the marginal productivity of seasonal workers exceeded R150 a day, farmers could argue that market forces dictate that given the huge – and in the Hex River Valley growing – surplus of labour, they need only pay the rate required to entice an individual to work. In terms of free-market analysis, anything above that level would be tantamount to altruism.
For the government, as it considers what can be done to ease the plight of these desperate individuals, the irony is that its own public works programme appears to have set the rate that farmers use as a benchmark for seasonal workers.
According to the Western Cape provincial co-ordinating office of the expanded public works programme, the minimum wage is R66.30 a day for unskilled workers. If the farmers are under pressure to increase pay, it is possible that the government will also be forced to increase its pay for public works programmes. This is another one of the many complexities in an extremely fraught situation.
In Robertson on Wednesday, Enoch a community-based organiser who seemed determined to restore an element of calm, said he wasn’t sure if the economy could afford the R150 demand, but said something had to be done.