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Cape Town - The Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) has accused the police and the government of colluding with farmers following the arrest of more than 100 farmworkers in Ceres on Wednesday evening.
The farmworkers were stopped at a road block as they returned from work and immigrants among the group had their documentation checked.
By Thursday afternoon, the majority of those arrested were still in custody at the Ceres police station. The union threatened that industry strikes would be held in solidarity with those arrested.
Friends and relatives of those detained gathered outside the police station, carrying bags of clothing and toiletries.
“They were taken away in their gumboots and overalls,” said Lanki Kokoana, who carried a small briefcase containing necessities. He said 30 of his colleagues had been arrested.
Mzuvukile Faksi said his wife and 18-month-old baby were in a prison cell. “I am South African and she is from Lesotho. We are married, but she does not have an ID. Our family is being torn apart,” said Faksi.
“They say she and our child will be taken back to Lesotho.”
Katishi Masemola, Fawu’s national general secretary, said the union was “aware of an emerging alliance between farmers and some in government, be they police, home affairs officials or councillors”.
Fawu provincial organiser Mxolisi Mngxunyeni said: “We suspect that farmers are using the police to get rid of foreign workers so they can avoid paying them out retrenchment packages and arrear wages. “Their struggle for a higher minimum wage is being undermined.”
After months of strikes on Western Cape farms, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant announced a 52 percent minimum wage increase for the industry - R105 a day, an amount which many farmers have said is unaffordable.
Braam Hanekom, of refugee rights organisation People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (Passop), said the arrests were undermining months of negotiations between his NGO, organised labour and the Department of Home Affairs.
Passop and Cosatu have been petitioning for documentation amnesty for foreigners, amid the “volatility and the threat of xenophobia” during the strike and its aftermath. “Many workers are being disempowered by this clampdown. Their right to organise, join unions and to report illegal and abusive conditions is being undermined.”
Yusuf Simons, provincial manager for Home Affairs, said the department had nothing to do with the arrests. He referred queries to the police, who denied an allegiance with farmers and said the arrests formed part of broader crime prevention operations in the Ceres area.
Porchia Adams, spokeswoman for Agri Wes-Cape, said Fawu was making serious and unfounded allegations against farmers - “allegations which we reject with the contempt that it deserves”.
“No farming body or individual farmer is involved in this. Fawu should get their facts straight before issuing press statements,” she said.