File photo: Thomas Holder.

Representatives of the government, labour formations and organised agriculture have agreed to a farm-by-farm settlement of differences over worker pay, employment conditions and possible profit-sharing schemes as a way to prevent further violence and social insurrection on Western Cape farms.

This means that strike action has been halted at least until January 9, when the unions will discuss the possibility of renewed strike action if settlements have not been reached.

The talks, led by Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, seemed to have calmed the situation yesterday, although most reports indicated only sporadic strike action since Tuesday.

The farm-by-farm solution was announced at a press conference at Parliament by Joemat-Pettersson after discussions with Agri Western Cape, representing farmers, and the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), Cosatu and a grouping led by farming activist Nosey Pieterse, the general secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of SA (Bawusa).

At a parliamentary briefing, Joemat-Pettersson took great pains to explain that this solution had nothing to do with the minimum wage determination being reviewed by the Labour Department, which would take effect in April. Until then the minimum wage was R69 a day.

However, the minister pointed out that farmers could pay more than the minimum wage. Many were already paying higher amounts.

Agri SA labour committee chairman Anton Rabe said that even at the minimum wage, the cost-to-employer was about R100 a day for each worker.

While Fawu and Cosatu organisers said that they were acceding to Agri SA’s stance on farm-by-farm negotiations, they would not hesitate to go on strike again on January 9 if workers did not receive adequate settlements.

Cosatu Western Cape secretary Tony Ehrenreich said: “This agreement represents a huge victory for farmworkers as it sets the basis for new relations between farmworkers and farmers to build a more fair and just agricultural environment.”

Pressed on how the union organisers could claim to represent farmworkers, when only about 4 percent of the 200 000 Western Cape farmworkers were members of unions, Pieterse said he had been asked by unrepresented workers to speak on their behalf. The issue of labour union representivity was “just a by-product” of the debate about how to end “slave wages” on farms.

Carl Opperman of Agri Western Cape said it had been the view of organised agriculture all along that it did not have a mandate from farmers to negotiate farmworker wages on their behalf. This had to be done on “a farm-by-farm” basis. “We have no mandate to talk about rands and cents… it is a matter between the farmer and his workers.”

Thus Agri Western Cape welcomed the decision. However, Opperman was emphatic that the new deadline for a resolution of differences – January 9 – had been imposed. “We are not part of that… we have not had any discussions.”

Pressed on the numbers that had taken part in this week’s strike action – with some reports that it had been only 1 500 workers – Pieterse was emphatic that it was “thousands”, including in De Doorns.

There had been picketing in Wellington, Agter-Paarl, Citrusdal, and Franschhoek. “You can’t say that only 1 600 were [on strike].” He also questioned reports that 95 percent of workers remained at work. “This is grossly inflated.”

Joemat-Pettersson pointed out that many of the workers who had gone on strike in recent weeks had not been paid. She called on the public and communities to assist with a relief fund to help feed the distressed workers. “This is a time for giving… and Christmas,” she said.