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Cape Town - Cosatu called on Wednesday for protest action against “profiteering” major food retailers, and for subsidised water and electricity for farmers to help them and their workers.
The union federation said it would stage protests outside Pick n Pay, Shoprite Checkers, Spar and Woolworths in the Western Cape on February 27 to highlight the fact that they “pay farmers a pittance for the products that are produced on South African farms”.
Tony Ehrenreich, Cosatu Western Cape provincial secretary said: “You could see protesters going into the stores, boycotting the stores and urging the community not to buy there.”
Cosatu said in a statement that “retailers are setting ridiculously low prices for products that they buy from farms”, which had resulted in a “distorted pricing structure in agriculture”.
The call follows the announcement of a 52 percent increase in the minimum wage for farmworkers, leading to predictions of huge job losses in the sector. Cosatu’s protest was part of its attempts to avert these.
Sarita van Wyk, corporate communications manager at the Shoprite Group, said it wasn’t true the retailer was profiteering from farmers: “The prices paid to farmers by the Shoprite Group are on par with prices worldwide.” She said if specifics were produced, the group would answer them in detail. The other retailers were not available.
Ehrenreich said the protest was set to start in the Western Cape and would then be held in other major cities.
Cosatu also called on farmers to work more closely with unions and the government to “ensure they get decent prices from the retailers”.
The federation criticised farmers’ organisation Agri SA, saying it had recently “badly let down farmers” by not tabling a high enough minimum wage proposal. Cosatu also said Agri SA should have asked the government for subsidies.
Agri SA had not responded at the time of going to press.
Ehrenreich said electricity subsidies would benefit farmers and rural communities by lowering their expenses.
He said South African agriculture was at a disadvantage internationally because international farmers habitually received government subsidies.
Frans Cronje, deputy chief executive of the Institute for Race Relations, said Cosatu was guilty of “circular reasoning” with regards to electricity subsidies, which would at best be a “short-term solution” for financial difficulties faced by farmers.
“The problem with subsidies is that they are not a solution… With subsidies you are taking money out of the same pot farmers are putting money into [through tax]… The only solution is to reduce the costs of doing business in South Africa,” he said.
Palesa Mokomele, spokeswoman for Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, said she was not aware of moves to subsidise electricity on farms. However, provision had been made for farmers who were struggling financially.
“Farmers in difficulty will be assisted to apply for the jobs retraining scheme, and those who genuinely can’t afford the minimum wage can apply for an exemption, as provided for in the act - as articulated by the minister of labour.”