A child runs towards a burning barricade during a strike by farm workers at De Doorns on the N1 highway, linking Cape Town and Johannesburg, January 9, 2013. Police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at hundreds of striking farm workers who blocked a highway in the grape-growing Western Cape on Wednesday, the first clashes of a year likely to be marked by fractious labour relations.

The Employment Conditions Commission (ECC) will meet this week to discuss the minimum wages of farmworkers, the labour department said on Monday.

“The ECC... is to meet on Thursday in a decisive meeting to consider the inputs collated from nationwide farmworkers' public hearings,” spokesman Mokgadi Pela said.

The ECC comprises government representatives, unions, and employers. They advise the minister on wages and other conditions of employment in “vulnerable” sectors.

The labour department tasked the ECC with reviewing the sectoral determination following an extended strike by Western Cape farmworkers for the minimum daily wage to be increased from R69 to R150.

The strike that started last year was suspended in December, but resumed almost two weeks ago in various towns in the province.

The department held an extra set of hearings in the Western Cape last week.

“A common theme that emerged in the public hearings from farmworkers and their representative organisations was that workers were being paid “slave wage” and needed a “living wage”,” Pela said.

Farmers argued that they could not afford higher wages as they were battling to keep their businesses afloat amid intense competition from highly subsidised imported farm produce.

They said higher wages could force them to replace workers with machinery to cut costs.

Labour standards director Titus Mtsweni said that after the ECC's meeting this week, the body would submit its report and recommendations to Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant.

Mtsweni said Oliphant would pronounce on the new minimum wage early in February, barring “unexpected eventualities”.

Wage adjustments would appear in the Government Gazette a day after the announcement.

The Food and Allied Workers' Union (Fawu) said it would meet with its members on Monday afternoon for a clearer mandate on whether to continue, suspend, or call off the strike.

General secretary Katishi Masemola said members had agreed for the union to enter into negotiations and agreements with individual farmers.

The union had also sent a letter to the Hex Valley Table Grapes Association, calling for negotiations to be convened urgently.

“While the cry for R150-a-day wages remains a clarion call by workers, the leadership will be flexible, as mandated, to approach these talks with an open mind,” Masemola said.

The Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) in the Northern Cape said it supported the strike, condemning the “pittance” paid to workers.

“It is a shame that farmworkers work tirelessly to produce food that they cannot afford to buy from the shelves in the shops,” provincial secretary Anele Gxoyiya said.

She said the strikes were likely to spread to other provinces if not handled correctly.

“We call on AgriSA to put aside their arrogance and face the reality before more lives are lost in this situation.”

On Monday morning, a group of farmworkers protested outside the Swellendam Magistrate's Court for the release of four of their leaders.

The Mawubuye Land Rights Movement said that chairman Henry Michaels and three other members had been in custody for a week following their arrest for public violence during a protest on Tuesday.

The forum and the Trust for Community Outreach and Education called for the four to be granted bail until their appearance next Monday. - Sapa