AGRICULTURE Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was expected to hold an urgent meeting in Pretoria today to discuss, on a national level, the De Doorns farmworker strike, which residents in the area fear will escalate.
And tomorrow she plans a meeting in Cape Town with farmworker representatives.
Last week, protesters in De Doorns blocked the N1 highway that runs through the area and set vineyards alight, with some farmers having to flee their farms.
Workers are demanding R150 a day – more than double the national minimum wage of R69.39.
The national minimum wage is set each year by the labour minister. It is next meant to be reconsidered in March.
Yesterday, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant’s spokesman, Musa Zondi, said the minister was in Geneva for an International Labour Organisation gathering, but she was aware of events at De Doorns.
He said members of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration were working on the matter.
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille said Oliphant needed to address the matter “and make it applicable country-wide”.
Yesterday, Palesa Mokomele, Joemat-Pettersson’s spokeswoman, said she planned to hold a meeting in Pretoria today with, among others, representatives from the CCMA and Agri SA.
Mokomele said tomorrow’s meeting with farmworker representatives was considered as more crucial.
Among other things, Joemat-Pettersson would look at the farmworkers’ national minimum wage.
At the weekend, a number of farmworkers said they had been told by an initial small group to join in the protest action, but they were not sure who was officially representing them.
Some said they had heard that Cosatu was speaking for them, but most said they had no formal representation.
Yesterday, Cosatu provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich said farmworker representatives had rejected the farmers’ offer of R80 a day and had called on workers across the province to stay away from work today.
“We could see a stayaway across the agricultural sector in the Western Cape.”
Ehrenreich said farmworkers in Mpumalanga had started striking, which meant farmworker action could spread across the country.
Cosatu backed their demand for R150 a day.
Meanwhile, Agri Wes-Cape has called on farmworkers to return to work.
“The table grape season is in full swing, and lots needs to be done to ensure a good harvest and income for the region.”
It added that the Hexriver Valley employed about 5 000 permanent workers and that roughly 8 000 seasonal workers were needed during harvest time.
“The Hexriver Valley is a large export region, earning foreign currency that boosts the economy in the Western Cape and the country.”
On Saturday, hundreds of farmworkers in De Doorns queued on a field in the town desperate to get one of 10 000 loaves of bread delivered to them by the Hexriver Tablegrape Association.
A number of the workers in the queue said they had been threatened by protesters to stay away from work for the week, but this had resulted in their losing their wages and being unable to afford food.
A woman, who declined to be named, said she earned R70 a day working on a farm.
“But I didn’t make money this week because the others said that if I go to work, they’ll hurt me. I need this bread for me and my child.”
Another worker, Raymond Snay, 42, a married father-of-three from the Stofland informal settlement, said he earned R70 a day, meaning he earned R1 400 a month.
After deducting his monthly expenses, he said he was left with between R250 and R450 to feed his family for a month.
Anton Viljoen, general manager of the ASV Group, which consists of a number of farms, said he paid his workers above the national minimum wage – R85 a day with no deductions.
Some of Viljoen’s vineyards were set alight during last week’s protests, but he said this had not caused significant damage.
He hoped his workers – most of whom went on strike – would return to their jobs today.
Asked if he was prepared to pay them more, he responded: “This thing is now a national issue.
“We will leave it for them to decide,” he said.