De doorns:Farmers took back to the street today after negotiation with the employer reached a deadlock.Picture Courtney Africa

The South African economy has kicked off the new year much like it ended 2012 – with more labour unrest. Farmworkers in the Western Cape resumed strike action to press for higher wages and better living conditions yesterday, bringing farms in parts of the province to a virtual standstill.

The Western Cape is a key producing area for stone fruit, grapes and other fruit for both export and local consumption.

The resumption of the strike, which had been put on hold during December, brought a number of rural towns to a standstill. More workers and provinces are expected to join the industrial action today.

Farmers said more than 2 000 workers did not report for work yesterday. Strikers blockaded some routes in Grabouw and De Doorns, while largely peaceful stayaways and gatherings were observed in other towns in the province.

Western Cape police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Andre Traut said 44 people had been arrested for intimidation and public violence.

Farmers are in the middle of the harvesting season but Agri Wes-Cape spokeswoman Porchia Adams said they could get away with keeping fruit on the trees for the next two weeks. However, as time went on the fruit would have to be picked.

The Department of Labour, which tried to avert the strikes by seeking common ground in separate meetings with labour and farmer representatives this week, said the two parties were still not seeing eye to eye, and the talks had therefore failed.

Acting spokesman Mokgadi Pela said the department’s position now was that the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration was the best body to mediate between farmers and workers, as it had done in the Marikana mine stand-off. It had put out a directive that the two parties must negotiate in that forum.

Despite the fears that these strikes could develop into a national crisis for the agricultural sector, Agri Wes-Cape said farmers could not enter into bargaining with the unions nor give in to their demands for a R150 daily minimum wage across the board.

“Realistically, we cannot give what they want. And we can’t negotiate with the unions. Because of the labour laws, we can only have discussions but there cannot be collective bargaining,” Adams said.

When the government prevailed on organised labour to suspend the strikes last year, they resolved that wage negotiations would take place on a farm-by-farm basis. However, last week union federation Cosatu said these negotiations had not taken place, which was why the strike had resumed.

Cosatu has called for boycotts of the produce of some fruit farmers through the Fairtrade initiative. It has also called on the government to withhold the required export permits for those farmers who refused “to put in place decent conditions of employment”, starting with Agri SA’s chairman.

A representative of the Food and Allied Workers Union, Sandile Keni, said if farmers were not willing to negotiate, the strikes would continue until workers, and not the unions, decided to call them off.

“We acknowledge that we may not get everything we want and we are not so selfish that we can’t listen to [the farmers] to hear what’s possible and what’s not. Some say they can’t afford R150 and we won’t be stubborn and say it should be R150 across the board because we understand they plant different products,” Keni said.

As it becomes crucial for farmers to get produce off the trees in the coming weeks, a continuation of the strikes for longer periods could mean financial ruin for some farmers. The harvesting season is critical for farmers as it is the only time in the year when they make income after ploughing in cash to get fruit growing.

“If we don’t make income now, we won’t only lose money but we won’t have work for the next season also,” Adams said.

Labour lawyer Dunstan Farrell said when farmers felt the pain that would come with the strikes, they were more likely to start collective bargaining even though there was no duty for them to bargain in terms of the Labour Relations Act.

He said without the duty to bargain, the only way workers could get employers to negotiate was indeed to strike.