130108. Farmworkers walking back home after a days work on a farm in De Doorns. Farmworkers are planning to go ahead with the planned strike. Workers are demanding R150 per day, currently the minimum wage is R69 per day. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

Cape Town - A large number of Western Cape farmworkers were back at work on Thursday, on the first day after strike action was suspended, agriculture MEC Gerrit van Rensburg said.

“Our understanding is that most farmworkers are back at work, with isolated incidents of striking workers,” said his spokesman Wouter Kriel.

Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) Western Cape secretary Tony Ehrenreich, who announced a week-long suspension of the strike on Wednesday, mirrored this information.

“All indications received are that people have gone back. It's not 100 percent as not every worker has been informed of the suspension, but there is a move to return to work.”

He said that even workers in De Doorns, the epicentre of the strike, were contemplating returning, in the spirit of negotiation.

Farmworkers went on strike last year to demand that their daily wage be increased from R69 to R150, and that a coherent land reform programme be implemented. The strike was suspended in December, but resumed last Wednesday in various towns in the province.

According to Cosatu, the strike would be resumed next Wednesday if Agri SA stopped honouring commitments to “local-level” agreements and did not agree to stop the victimisation of workers.

Contrary to Cosatu's announcement, the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry (Bawsi) said the strike was still on.

“The strike will continue across the province until there is an agreement for better wages and worker protection,” said Nosey Pieterse, Bawsi president and general secretary of the Building and Allied Workers' Union of SA.

“Workers who go back do so at a huge risk. They are going back to vindictive farmers, more dismissals, victimisation and intimidation; the same old life, the same old money.”

Pieterse said he represented thousands of striking workers who did not belong to unions.

The agriculture department estimated the number of permanent and seasonal workers in the province at around 200 000.

Of these, only five percent were unionised, Ehrenreich said.

Despite this figure, he said Cosatu had more influence in the strike.

“Cosatu is a national organisation with incredible influence and power, with alarming strength. This is not a competition though. We want to work with smaller organisations. Bawsi is a small organisation with significant influence.”

Agri SA has repeatedly called for individual farmers to negotiate with their workers, which is apparently taking place.

Western Cape police spokesman Andre Traut said no arrests or reports of violence linked to the protest were recorded overnight or on Thursday morning. - Sapa