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Farmworkers’ jobs on the line

Cape Town - Stark warnings of the laying off of thousands of farmworkers have been sounded in the wake of an announcement by acting labour minister Angie Motshekga in yesterday’s Government Gazette which looks set to see minimum wages in the sector increased. This comes after widespread violence rocked the Western Cape.

One person has died and 52 have been injured since the start of the protest action two weeks ago, which has spread to at least 15 farming towns.

A policeman stands guard as smoke billows from a shop set alight during mass destruction by looters in Railton near Swellendam. Picture: Leon Lestrade. Credit: Independent Newspapers

In the latest violence yesterday, seven people were injured after police fired rubber bullets in the vicinity of Ceres. Ten people injured this week remain in hospital.

The violence spilled over to Swellendam on Thursday night, where more violent clashes saw shops looted and gutted by fire after a Western Cape High Court decision granting the DA interim relief to take back the local municipality, following a hostile takeover by the ANC and the ACDP last month.

Last night, the provincial disaster management centre said stones and debris littering roads in Robertson and Ashton had been cleaned up, and roads were open in Witzenberg.

However, the N1 at De Doorns remained closed, along with the R60 between Ashton and Swellendam because of a large hole in the road.

Provincial traffic authorities have increased patrols and visible policing.

Also yesterday, national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega warned that police had their hands full as the country experienced “very challenging circumstances in policing”.

Referring to incidents “erupting all over”, she said police were grappling with a flood of instability and public disorder caused by services not being delivered to people and communities across the country.

Earlier, SA Police Union president Mpho Kwinika said police officers should be properly trained to deal with public violence and strikes that turned violent.

“Members of the police force lack the required skills to handle public violence,” he said, pointing out that communities often used violence during protests and strikes to ensure they were heard by the authorities. The union was concerned that not enough was being done to train police officers.

Meanwhile, Motshekga’s announcement that the R69-a-day minimum wage would be reviewed has sparked dire warnings from agricultural industry bodies, including Agri-Western Cape, the Transvaal Agricultural Union, fruit horticulture body Hortgro, as well as economists.

The farmworkers are demanding R150 a day.

Cosatu has called on the farmworkers to suspend the strike until December 4, and to resume only if the talks fail to yield results.

Motshekga, who is standing in for Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, who is in Switzerland, also announced that the conditions of employment of farm labourers across the country would be reviewed.

The announcement came after Tuesday’s comments by Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersen that the labour department would review the minimum wage with a view to raising it to R80 an hour.

But yesterday the agriculture bodies forecast that farmers would lay off workers in their thousands to absorb wage increases.

The Transvaal Agricultural Union’s Henk van der Graaf said major job losses would result: “Farm owners will cut their labour by half to fit their budgets.”

Economist Dawie Roodt agreed, warning that if the minimum wage was hiked for political reasons, further unemployment would result.

“Many will lose their jobs because of the increase, and there are really literally millions of people who are willing to work for significantly less than the basic wage currently offered. Instead of putting out this emotional statement in response to strikes, the government should be realistic about how this will affect the economy.”

Economic growth would be slowed down, there would be fewer jobs, and prices would increase.

Some experts pointed out that Western Cape farmers would also have to carry the extra burden of paying for repairs to burnt and damaged property and crops

. Agri-Western Cape spokeswoman

Porchia Adams, who described the unrest as the worst amongst farm labourers the Western Cape had seen, said it was “highly likely” that farmers would lay off workers to keep their farms financially viable.

“Farmers will re-assess their options and try to employ the fewest possible labourers. Farmers have been going out of their way to provide work for as many labourers as possible, but will unfortunately be driven to let workers go.

“The economic impact of the strike means they have to find a way to recoup millions lost as a result.”

She added that in 19 years she had never experienced such severe farm labour unrest.

Hortgro representative Anton Rabe said: “The fruit production structure of the Western Cape will never be the same again. These events have shaken the industry and will lead to a review of long-term industry and business strategies.”

There was no doubt that the current production and cost structure, based on labour-intensive practices, would change. This would translate to farmworkers eventually losing their jobs to machines.

Rabe said the government arrived at the existing minimum wage of R69 a day after careful consideration.

“That figure didn’t just fall from the sky. On an operational level, the average farmer will not be able to afford to pay more than the current minimum wage,” he said, warning that part-time workers would be the first to go.

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