Tony Ehrenreich

Cosatu called on Wednesday for protest action against “profiteering” major food retailers, and for subsidised water and electricity for farmers to help them and their workers.

The union federation said it would stage protests outside retail stores Pick n Pay, Shoprite Checkers, Spar and Woolworths in the Western Cape on February 27 to highlight the fact that the retail chains “pay farmers a pittance for the products that are produced on South African farms”.

“You could see protesters going into the stores, boycotting the stores and urging the community not to buy there,” said Tony Ehrenreich, Cosatu Western Cape provincial secretary.

Cosatu said in a statement that “retailers are setting ridiculously low prices for products that they buy from farms”, which resulted in a “distorted pricing structure in agriculture”.

The call follows the announcement of a 52 percent increase in the minimum wage for farmworkers, leading to predictions of huge job losses in the sector.

Cosatu’s protest was part of its attempts to avert these.

Sarita van Wyk, corporate communications manager at the Shoprite Group, said it was not true that the retailer was profiteering from farmers.

“The prices paid to farmers by the Shoprite Group are on par with prices worldwide.”

She said if specific issues were raised, Shoprite would answer them in detail.

Ehrenreich said the planned protest was set to start in the Western Cape where there had been strikes by farmworkers over wages, which had led to the new R105 a day minimum wage.

The protest action would then take place in other cities.

Cosatu also called on farmers to work more closely with unions and the government to “ensure that they get decent prices from the retailers”.

The federation criticised farmers’ organisation Agri SA, saying it had recently “badly let farmers down” by not tabling a high enough minimum wage proposal.

Cosatu said Agri SA should have asked the government for subsidies.

Agri SA had not responded at the time of going to press.

Ehrenreich said electricity subsidies would benefit farmers and rural communities by lowering their expenses.

He said that South African agriculture was at a disadvantage, as international farmers regularly received government subsidies.

Ehrenreich did not say by how much electricity prices should be reduced, but said negotiations about this should start between farmers and the government.

Frans Cronje, deputy chief executive of the Institute for Race Relations, said Cosatu was guilty of “circular reasoning” with regards to electricity subsidies, which would at best be a “short-term solution” for financial difficulties faced by farmers.

He said subsidies were not a solution.

“With subsidies you are taking money out of the same pot that farmers are putting money into (through tax)… The only actual solution is to reduce the costs of doing business in South Africa,” he said.

Palesa Mokomele, spokeswoman for Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, said she was not aware of any moves to subsidise electricity on farms.

However, provision had been made for farmers who were struggling financially.

She said those farmers who “genuinely cannot afford to pay the minimum wage”could apply for an exemption as mentioned by the minister.