Cape Town - Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant has turned her attention to “other work” in the midst of a violent farmworker strike in the Western Cape.
The strike, which saw vehicles set alight, motorists stoned and the N1 and N2 highways closed, is set to enter its third day on Friday.
On Thursday, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille said Oliphant’s silence and lack of proactive engagement must be challenged.
She said the legal power to address the issue of farmworker minimum wages “lies squarely with Oliphant”.
“It’s worth asking where she is in the midst of these strikes,” Zille said.
“At the very least, her stepping in could help prevent more of the extreme violence that happened (on Wednesday). The continuation of that violence will only result in great harm to exports, jobs and food security.”
In response, Oliphant’s spokeswoman, Musa Zondi, said: “We are trying our best to mediate.”
Asked why Oliphant was not in the Western Cape attempting to intervene, Zondi said: “There is a lot of other things to do in the department. The minister has other work as well. She was in the Western Cape from Monday to Wednesday.”
Zondi said Oliphant was concerned about the effects of the strike and warned farmworkers that the right to strike “does not equate to being violent”.
“The workers need to follow the correct processes. They can’t be violent and expect their demands to be met.”
Farmworkers are demanding a R150 daily wage.
The Economic Conditions Commission (ECC) is set to meet at the end of the month to discuss by how much the farmworkers’ minimum daily wage will be increased, from the current R69.
If Oliphant agrees with the ECC recommendations she will publish new minimum wages before the end of February.
The new minimum wages are due to come into effect on March 1.
Michael Bagraim, a labour analyst at the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said it was difficult to calculate the cost to the economy and farmers after this week’s strike action.
He said estimates showed that close to R150 million in damage was caused during last year’s strike.
“This time it will not be that much for farmers because they’ve put contingency plans in place,” Bagraim said.
Bagraim said the real cost will be felt when global markets start buying fruit from other, more stable, countries.
“This is a radical situation and the country can ill-afford it,” he said. “It’s destroying what Nelson Mandela built after 1994. He built our economy abroad and this is destroying it.”
On Thursday, Cosatu urged parties to return to the negotiating table to find constructive solutions to the crisis in the agriculture sector.
Cosatu provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich also called for Agriculture MEC Gerrit van Rensburg’s head, claiming he gave R2m to farmers’ organisations to assist them to “maintain white control over farms”.
Ehrenreich said workers would continue striking “until the farmers come to their senses”.
“Cosatu will not call off the strike as it has done on previous occasions when things threatened to get out of control,” he said.
Van Rensburg said Cosatu’s claims were based on inaccuracies: “I am a servant of agriculture and look after the interest of farmers and workers. Our call now is for people to refrain from violence. We are definitely going to lose jobs and face further destruction if this strike continues.”
* The SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has condemned the “vicious attack” by striking farmworkers on Cape Times’ journalists covering their unprotected strike in De Doorns on Wednesday and called on police to arrest the attackers and prosecute them. “Sanef reminds union officials that the media and its journalists have a duty to report on strikes in the public interest and that, as unarmed observers of events, they must have adequate protection.”