Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant

Cobus Coetzee, Jason Felix and Xolani Koyana

LEADERS called for calm yesterday as the province and the country prepared for a national farmworkers’ strike expected to start today.

Workers said they planned to bring the agriculture sector to its knees in the hope of forcing the government to push the minimum wage from R69 to R150 per day.

Farmers in the Western Cape have contracted private security, staffed by former military and ex-special forces personnel, to protect their property.

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant called on farmworkers and farmers to keep calm today and “conduct themselves peacefully”.

“Violence has no place in our society whose foundation as a democracy is based on intensive social dialogue. Nothing yet has proven to work better than the ability to negotiate and reach consensus,” said Oliphant.

Last month protesting farmworkers closed down the N1 Highway, and millions of rand were lost when vineyards and packhouses were burnt to the ground, while several farms had to close for days.

Farmworkers suspended their strike when unions said they had secured an agreement from the government to revise the minimum

wage by today. But Oliphant subsequently said the review would not be done before April.

At the weekend, farmworkers rejected Oliphant’s stance and vowed to resume their strike today.

More than 10 security companies have deployed 50 security personnel in Ceres and 30 in De Doorns to monitor farms.

TSU Protection Services’ Wimpie Espag said they had been camping outside Ceres and Witzenberg for the past two weeks.

They are employed by farmers in the valley.

“We are all ex-special forces, military and cops, and all the security companies are co-ordinated under one control centre where we can dispatch a unit of 12 men to secure a farm before the police get there,” said Espag.

TSU has three helicopters under its command.

Espag said they would hand over to police as soon as they arrived on a scene.

“We have good co-operation with the police in the area,” he said.

The secretary-general of the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry, Nosey Pieterse, said farmworkers would participate in a march in De Doorns and all other major farming towns.

He called on people to stay calm.

Pieterse said he had received reports of farmworkers being threatened with dismissal if they took part in the strike.

In Ceres, farmers received letters from farm-owners Witzenberg Properties saying that more than 700 farmworkers who had participated in the protests between November 13 and 16 were on their final warning and would be fired if they participated in any similar action during the next nine months.

“We cannot condone people who participate in illegal strikes,” Witzenberg human resources manager Theo Badenhorst told the Cape Times.

Oliphant called on the farmers and those representing workers to continue negotiating in good faith.

The department was going ahead with public hearings that would contribute to fashioning a new sectoral determination for farmworkers.

“The process is continuing. The hearings have been scheduled until December 13, 2012, but in some instances the department will be going back for further hearings where we have been requested to,” she said.

Cosatu provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich said they were in talks with farmers outside of AgriSA – who produce 80 percent of all agricultural products in the Western Cape – who were willing to pay the higher wage.

“We are close to a deal, while groups like AgriSA don’t want to pay more than the slave wages they pay now,” he said.

AgriSA’s head of labour relations, Anton Rabe, said their members paid up to 40 percent more than the minimum wage but that they do not have a mandate to negotiate wages on behalf of farmers.

“We have always been willing to participate and find the best solution,” said Rabe.

He called on farmers and workers alike to stay calm.

Police spokesman Andre Traut said the Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure, which comprised the NPA, government departments and the provincial disaster management centre, was on high alert.

Public order police have already been deployed.