The farmworkers’ dispute, which has prompted a 52 percent increase in their minimum daily wage, highlighted some of the intractable challenges confronting this country.
From the use of violence in the vineyards of the Western Cape, and unions pushing agendas beyond pure member interests, to unrelenting tensions between decent pay and profit – South Africans have seen this sequence before and will, no doubt, see it again.
Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant’s announcement of a R105-a-day minimum wage from March 1, up from R69, has employers and employees grumbling. The workers had a case, their violence did not: R69 is pathetic, not a decent wage, but did not warrant some of the things that happened.
The farmers had a point, too: the cumulative impact of R36 more a day is dramatic. It is said to be R6 billion a year, and has set off dire warnings of job losses, particularly on the smaller farms.
There lies the rub. Workers should not be denied fair remuneration. But their demands should not be such that they jeopardise their own employment. The question of agriculture, and every other sector in our economy, is: at what point does labour outprice itself?
As other industries have found to their painful cost, expensive local goods spawn cheaper imports, wiping out volumes of domestic jobs. Consumers are ready to be proudly South Africa, if they can afford it.
Many farmers say it is not a question of profit, but survival of their enterprises. Unions plainly disbelieve them, and are of the view that their margins are still fat, there is plenty still to squeeze. The months ahead will bare the truth.
The ANC thinks the new minimum will go a long way in eradicating poverty in the farming community, as well as improving socio-economic conditions. For many workers it will mean immense relief; but agony for those who find themselves jobless as a result.