Hundreds of protesting farmworkers gathering on the N1 near De Doorns. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus. (File picture).

Cosatu accused the major food retailers of contributing to the “slave wages paid on farms” that are behind the wave of unrest among seasonal workers in the Hex River Valley.

Yesterday, as Cosatu addressed an open letter to the retailers, there was little sign of a resolution of the crisis in the region as several workers’ organisations and trade unions rejected the Department of Labour’s public hearings on the minimum wage for farmworkers. The deputy minister for agriculture warned that the “exorbitant” increase in wages being demanded would lead to job losses in the sector.

In its open letter to retailers, Cosatu said that it was “aware that many of the retailers are price-setters and force the farms into low payments for their produce”.

The trade union organisation added: “We are also aware that these low costs are not being passed onto the consumers… Retailers have had the highest profit levels of all economic activity in the country and their directors earn the highest salaries… these excesses are in large measure the reasons for the skewed economic structure… and it is unsustainable.”

Cosatu urged the retailers to review payments to farmers in order to ensure that they received a “decent return on investment, while at the same time guaranteeing decent salaries and working and living conditions”.

The retailers denied Cosatu’s charge, with Shoprite stating that the prices were set in a free market system and were influenced by many factors, which made it impossible for the company to dictate the price to its suppliers.

“Our main objective is to supply our 71 million customers with the lowest possible prices,” Shoprite said.

Pick n Pay said: “As our balance sheet clearly indicates we pass the benefits accruing from its supply chain to consumers, particularly in times when consumers are under pressure such as now.”

It added that the company was strongly supportive of sustainable farming and developing emerging farmers through the Pick n Pay Foundation.

Woolworths said it had “watched the developing situation on Western Cape farms with great concern”. It said it was committed to fair labour practices throughout its entire supply chain and worked with its suppliers to ensure that high standards were met.

And yesterday a coalition of farmworkers, trade unions and non-government organisations issued a statement rejecting the government’s decision to convene public hearings on the minimum wage.

“Their goal is not to address the issues raised by striking workers but to divide us and obstruct the achievement of our demands. We have been making representations for years… and they were ignored. Now that we mobilised ourselves and went out on strike, the government is doing everything in [its] power to avoid speaking to farmworkers directly.”

On Wednesday, according to Sapa reports, Pieter Mulder, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, warned that the “exorbitant” wage increases being demanded would result in job losses and mechanisation.

Speaking at an agriculture day in Willowmore in the Eastern Cape, Mulder said farmers were ready to limit their reliance on farmworkers. “The current agricultural strikes will change agriculture in South Africa forever,” he said.