Sugar cane being unloaded at an Illovo mill. Photo: Supplied

Johannesburg - The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) intervened yesterday in the national sugar strike, which could threaten the country’s production.

“I can confirm that talks are being held between involved parties,” CCMA spokeswoman Laura Mseme said yesterday.

Workers in sugar refineries and mills have entered a second week of strike action to demand an 11 percent wage increase. Other demands included a 40-hour work week and an R800 a month housing subsidy. The 5 530 strikers also want all fixed-term and contract workers to be permanently employed.

One of the three major companies affected, Tongaat Hulett, said it had offered an 8.5 percent increase. The other affected companies are Illovo Sugar and TSB Sugar Holdings.

The talks are being conducted under section 150 of the Labour Relations Act, which allows the mediator to intervene in a dispute of public interest.

Although there were no indications that stocks were running out, the Association of SA Sugar Importers (Asasi) said if such a situation arose, imports would cover the shortfall.

An increase in the dollar-based reference price from $358 (R3 782) a ton to $566 a ton was announced by the International Trade Administration Commission of SA in April. This amounted to an increase of R1.32 per kilogram imported.

Most importers sell sugar to businesses that produce foods and beverages such as cereals, ice cream, sauces, biscuits, juice and beer.

“Importers have buffer stocks which are being kept as reserves. Stocks in the Western Cape could last up to six months, so this area will not be affected should the strike carry on,” Asasi chairman Chris Engelbrecht said, adding that importers had not as yet seen any increase in demand.

Food and Allied Workers Union general secretary Katishi Masemola said yesterday that although the union could not measure its impact, “strike action is beginning to bite”.

“At the moment we cannot measure the impact because it is still early but we know that there have been disruptions to sugar production in most of the sugar mills,” he added.

Masemola addressed workers outside TSB’s mills in Malelane, Mpumalanga. He said that the union would be mobilising members at companies where sugar was used as an ingredient.

“We call for sympathy strikes from all who work for companies where sugar is used, such as beverage and food companies and sweet and chocolate factories.”

He said the union would also be mobilising for cane cutters and those who worked in the plantations.

Masemola said both employers and workers were losing out as a result of the strike.

“Production is at a standstill and we as workers are on a no work, no pay strike.”

Meanwhile, the National Union of Leather and Allied Workers, which is affiliated to the Federation of Unions of SA, embarked on a protected national strike yesterday. This will affect about 164 footwear employers with 10 000 employees. Workers were demanding an increase of at least 7.75 percent in wages across the board.