Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. File picture: Leon Nicholas

Cape Town - Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant must act decisively to stop violent farmworker strikes in the Western Cape, the provincial government said on Friday.

“Her deafening silence in the face of this crisis must be challenged,” said Western Cape premier Helen Zille and provincial agricultural MEC Gerrit van Rensburg in a joint statement.

They said that Oliphant should not “hide” behind calls to follow official processes.

“It is incumbent on the labour minister to make the first move in defusing the situation, through visible and proactive engagement.”

The strike by seasonal farmworkers to have their minimum R69 daily wage increased to R150 - which began late August last year, and was called off at the beginning of December - resumed on Wednesday in De Doorns.

Running clashes between protesters and the police have seen hundreds arrested for public violence and the police using a water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades in an attempt to disperse thousands of strikers. The N1 had also been closed.

Zille and Van Rensburg said Oliphant needed to get all the parties involved into discussions as soon as possible so that the harvest season was not affected.

“Failure to do so will see very severe consequences, not only for the Western Cape but for South Africa as a whole.”

On Friday, Oliphant suggested it was farmers who needed to come to the negotiation table.

“I am not convinced that there is a serious attempt by farmers to negotiate,” said Oliphant in a statement.

She said farm owners were instead insisting on a sectoral determination process which would hold hearings from next week to re-look at the R69 a day minimum wage.

On Friday, the Cape Orchards Company (COC) representing 12 farms in De Doorns agreed to talk with various unions.

Meanwhile, the National Employers' Association of SA (Neasa) warned that strike action could not lead to long lasting changes.

“Industrial action may force employers to make immediate concessions, but it cannot secure long term employment,” Neasa CEO Gerhard Papenfus said in a statement.

He said that wage increases had to take “economic realities” into account.

“Any increases which do not fit into a sustainable business model will lead to all kinds of undesired consequences, which in turn will result in unemployment.”

Papenfus gave the example of the wage negotiations that took place in the mining sector after it was beset by wildcat strikes.

He warned that higher wages could also lead to retrenchments.

“One can also not ignore the fact that low earners are finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet. However, it's also true that the millions of unemployed South Africans pose an even bigger threat in the medium to long term,” he said. - Sapa