Cape Town - Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has committed the government to supporting the agricultural sector to retain jobs while remaining productive and profitable.
Motlanthe and his panel fielded comments on Tuesday from farmers and workers at Paarl meetings which was aimed at informing President Jacob Zuma before his State of the Nation Address on Thursday.
The new minimum farm wage has sparked fears of mass retrenchments and the decreased profitability of commercial agriculture.
“As during the global financial crisis in 2008 government need to organise with business (commercial agriculture) to develop a package of support. Stability is needed for profitability and job retention. Achieving this is in the interest of government - from a revenue collection point of view,” said Motlanthe.
Minister of Agriculture Tina Joemat-Pettersson, whose department convened the meetings, added that government was still deciding on the form of the support package.
“Whether government decides on tax breaks or subsidies, this support needs to translate into improvements in the conditions of workers and into the ability of employers to retain and create jobs,” she said.
A primary focus of the morning dialogue with farmers was the unaffordability of the new minimum wage in the sector of R105 a day.
Citing tariff increases in electricity and other escalating input costs, Hans van der Merwe, executive director of AgriSA, said: “Ability to pay and willingness to pay are two different things. The ability of many farmers to pay the new wage doesn’t exist, and this has the potential to cause chaos in the industry.”
Van der Merwe and many speakers admitted that the strikes were a “game-changer” for the sector - one that needed a creative and multi-pronged approach to ensure sustainability.
One suggestion was that the government invest more in infrastructure and services (roads, water, electricity and housing) to support workers and employers. Joemat-Pettersson said: “Government needs to commit to service delivery for workers because many still live in dire conditions.”
For panellist Rob Davies, Minister of Trade and Industry, the future needs to be defined by more “benefit sharing”.
Farmworkers expressed concerns that deductions by employers and constant increases in the cost of living could nullify the wage gains.
Panellist Marius Fransman, speaking in his capacity as Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, said that farmers increasing deductions and decreasing benefits for their employees was a major concern. Strategies for how this could be done were, however, not suggested.
Responding to a question of farm ownership, Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti said the government had completed an audit of state-owned land, but was still busy with its audit of public and private land.
“Privately owned land includes land which is owned by foreigners. We are busy auditing all of that land. All people who are foreign nationals will not own land, but will lease land on a long-term basis,” he said.