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WESTERN Cape farmers are gearing up for further labour unrest, forking out money for heavily-armed private security guards, who use helicopters and wear bullet-proof vests, and buying fire engines in anticipation of chaos as time runs out for finding solutions to the farm wage crisis.
Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich, meanwhile, warned that further strike action from farmworkers was virtually inevitable unless “government and the farmers bring an acceptable agreement for a wage hike” to the fore.
A helicopter was circling De Doorns this week, scanning the area where farmworkers first downed tools for any sign of protest action.
Yesterday, the president of Agri Wes Cape, Cornie Swart, called a group of 300 farmers to action.
“Go back to your homes and prepare to defend yourselves, your farms, your property and your families. We were caught with our pants down (two weeks ago). We cannot allow that to happen again,” he warned them.
Swart appealed for President Jacob Zuma to intervene.
“If the president does not step in to rein in Cosatu there will be serious bloodshed,” he cautioned.
Pictures have been posted on a website of armed security guards preparing for action.
After government intervention, striking workers last week agreed to suspend further action until December 4 for government and the farmers to thrash out solutions.
But yesterday, at a meeting convened by the Department of Labour, farmers were adamant that they could not afford the R150 per day strikers demanded.
Last week, Weekend Argus reported that farmers in De Doorns were arranging for private security companies to secure their properties. In some cases, air support was on standby. It is understood that the situation is similar in the Ceres area.
Swart accused Cosatu of secretly agitating strikers towards violence.
Negotiations between Cosatu, the Department of Labour and AgriSA got under way in Cape Town on Thursday, but there is little optimism that they will reach agreement before the deadline.
Meanwhile, the parties are at loggerheads over the December 4 deadline for the law on the minimum wage to be changed to address the strikers’ demands.
Farmers have demanded to know what the department’s strategy is for preventing “bloodshed and farm burning” on December 4.
But, officials deny ever having committed to such a date and Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s office has distanced itself from the two-week deadline.
Spokesman Palesa Mokomela told Weekend Argus the minister had merely acted as an intermediary between Cosatu and the Department of Labour in urging strikers on November 13 to suspend their protests for two weeks while a long-range solution was found.
“At the time it was imperative that a deal was brokered for the strike action to be called off,” Mokomela said. “We had reports that the strike was spreading beyond De Doorns and we realised that there was the potential for massive damages to be incurred. The situation needed to be disarmed as a matter of urgency.”
But almost two weeks later, it remained “highly unlikely” a wage agreement could be agreed and implemented, according to AgriWC’s Porchia Adams.
At yesterday’s meeting in the Worcester Town Hall, farmers resisted discussion of a sectoral wage determination, demanding instead to know what the department’s strategy was for preventing mayhem from breaking out.
Titus Mtsweni, the department’s acting director of labour standards, said the department had no such mandate.
“This has nothing to do with the fourth of December,” added Thembinkosi Mkalipi, chief director of Labour Relations – at which point a farmer heckled from the floor: “It has everything to do with the fourth of December.”
Mkalipi continued: “This hearing is about whether or not there is a case to be made for the minimum wage to be reviewed. You are business people, I am asking you a simple question: Can you manage to pay R150? If you cannot, then explain to us why not. Explain to us what you can manage. We must come back to this issue. If we do not, then you forfeit your opportunity to contribute to the (determination of a minimum wage).”
The meeting was the second in a series of hearings which will run at the same time as negotiations. The hearings, which will conclude on December 13 with hearings in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, involve getting input from both farmers and workers.
“We made it clear (at negotiations in) De Doorns that we are not negotiating, we are not putting an amount on the table. You are trying to force us to do so, but you know very well that it takes a whole year to determine the minimum wage. Who are we bluffing to say that it can be done in a couple of weeks,” said one De Doorns farmer
Swart drew attention to the fact that the industry in the Western Cape had suffered millions of rand in damages.
“Add to these expenses the fact that we now have bulk up our private security and buy fire trucks and those expenses are considerably inflated,” said Johan de Wet, a farmer in Rawsonville and chairman of Du Toits Kloof wines.
Mike Louw of Cosatu said that “feedback from the department” was not enough to avert strike action on December 4.
“Our reality is that we want an offer on the table from AgriSA to emanate from these discussions by December 4. If we do not, the strike will be relaunched,” he said.
But Adams stressed that AgriWC had not endorsed the two-week agreement.
De Doorns’ ANC councillor Pat Januarie interrupted the department’s Mtsweni as the meeting began. “What’s the point of this meeting when there are hardly any farm- workers here?” he asked.
One farmworker present was Monwabisi Kondile, a Food and Allied Workers Union member employed at the Keurboschkloof table grape farm outside De Doorns.
“Farmworkers are still very angry. We will strike on December 4 (if the farmers remained unmoved). But I don’t think that people will burn vineyards like they did before. I hope not, because it is in those vineyards that we need to work,” Kondile said.
A Fawu meeting is scheduled to take place in De Doorns tomorrow.