Wage deal riles farmers

Craig Dodds,

Shanti Aboobaker

and Xolani Koyana

FARMERS who say the new minimum wage will lead to job losses could lose their land, Cosatu Western Cape secretary Tony Ehrenreich said yesterday.

Ehrenreich was responding to warnings from Agri-SA and Agri Western Cape that the increased minimum wage for farmworkers would lead to “restructuring”, including mechanisation and decreased demand for unskilled labour.

“The farmers who make these threats must keep on making these threats. The restructuring will happen and part of that restructuring will lead to them losing their land,” he said.

“If they can’t use it then they must lose it. They must go somewhere else. But this is a country now that understands that workers are an essential input, that their interests and their best futures must also be taken into account.”

The time for “old ‘baasskap’ attitudes” was over, he said after the announcement yesterday by Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant of a minimum wage of R105 a day, which farmworker groups said fell short of their expectations.

Agri Western Cape chief executive Carl Opperman said increased labour costs would lead to shedding of surplus labour. “We will have much more high-productive labour, much more skilled labour. So we will not accommodate a lot of the unskilled labour on the farm any more, and that will be moved back to the government and we will see how they can handle it,” he said.

Oliphant announced the R36 increase on the current minimum of R69 a day in Pretoria yesterday, saying it would take effect from March 1 and would be followed by increases equal to the consumer price inflation rate plus 1.5 percentage points for the following two years.

But, as suggested in a specially commissioned study, this is likely to stretch some farmers’ finances to breaking point while coming nowhere close to a living wage for their workers.

The hike follows strikes last year, when workers demanded a minimum of R150 a day.

Oliphant quoted the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy economic analysis commissioned by parties to negotiations in the sector to explain the paradox faced by the Employment Conditions Commission in making a recommendation to her on a new minimum wage.

The study found that “if the average wage increases to more than R104.98 a day, many farms will be unable to cover their operating expenses and hence not be able to pay back borrowings or to afford entrepreneurs remuneration”.

It found that “the real problem is that even at what seems to be an unaffordable minimum wage of R150 a day, most households cannot provide the nutrition that is needed to make them food secure”.

Oliphant appeared to acknowledge the possibility of job losses when she said farmers in difficulty should use the government’s training lay-off scheme, which provides skills to redundant workers.

She also said farmers could apply for an exemption to the minimum wage “provided they are going to submit proof” in the form of financial statements showing they couldn’t afford the regulated minimum.

Employment Conditions Commission member Professor

Adriaan van der Walt said such exemptions had not “significantly been granted” in the past “because the principle of the minimum wage is really to bring… the minimum wage up to a level that is a little bit closer to a living wage”.

Mercia Andrews of Mawubuye Land Rights Movement said there were mixed reactions from workers in the Ashton and Robertson areas about the new minimum wage.

“They feel like it is a small step from what they earned before. They still feel that they live below living wages. Many see the R150 as an amount they must still struggle for. This small victory is because of their struggle and they will continue to fight.

“Their struggle was not just about the demand for R150; it was about their victimisation at the hands of farmers. A great number of workers have been evicted and dismissed. Those issues have not been dealt with and we will take them up in the coming days.”

Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of SA general secretary Nosey Pieterse said he was “disappointed” with Oliphant’s decision to keep the minimum wage under R150. He feared that those workers who had set their hearts on a minimum wage of R150 would want to resume the strike.

“Maybe she didn’t hear sufficient voices that supported an increase to R150,” he said.

He said the union would discuss the issue with Cosatu and other organisations.

Agriculture and Rural Development MEC Gerrit van Rensburg welcomed the announcement and hoped it would bring peace to the farms.

The minimum wage was now law and all farmers should abide by it, he said.

He said the national government should set up a programme to incentivise farmers to help them absorb high labour costs.

Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder said South Africans faced the “unfortunate” choice of a minimum wage or no work at all.

“It should be expected that South Africa’s agriculture will in the next couple of years undergo a total restructuring where farmers will be changing to less labour-intensive products or will mechanise in an effort to balance their books,” Mulder said.

“Where permanent workers will not be affected so much by the new wage determination, it will lead to the dismissal of tens of thousands of seasonal and temporary workers. The decision will also directly work against the government’s intention to create more jobs in rural areas. It will also very negatively affect emerging farmers.”

DA spokesman on labour Sej Motau said the party hoped the new determination would put an end to farm strikes.

“We trust that Minister Oliphant and the various negotiating parties, including Cosatu, have factored in the potential job losses in the sector and that government will be putting measures in place to mitigate against this.”


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