Cape Town - A call for a revival of the farmworker strike in De Doorns has been met with opposition by many of the town’s workers.
Friday was the anniversary of the wildcat strikes that plunged the Boland farming region into chaos last year.
Nosey Pieterse, the president of the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry and general secretary of Bawusa, the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa, called for a resumption of the strike when he spoke at a poorly attended meeting at the Stofland Stadium in De Doorns on Sunday.
In recent weeks, Pieterse has sent farmers in the Hex River Valley scrambling for extra security by threatening that farmworkers will stage another “mass action”.
However, farmworkers differ over whether strikes should be resumed.
A civic organisation, the Hexvallei Plaaswerker Assosiasie (HPA), has been lobbying against a strike, and the Food and Allied Worker’s Union (Fawu) has accused Pieterse of being insensitive to the suffering and risks faced by workers who embark on unprotected strikes.
During last year’s strike, which peaked during mid-November and again in mid-January, farmers lost tens of millions of rand in productivity and to damage as strikers burned vineyards, packing stores and farming infrastructure.
The N1 and other roads were closed and there was widespread looting during the strike, which spread to Ceres, Robertson, Grabouw and surrounding areas. Three people died, two of them killed by the police.
In response to the workers’ central demand for a higher minimum wage, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant sent a task team to meet workers and farmers in all nine provinces. Acting on her team’s recommendations, Oliphant announced a new sectoral determination of R105 a day (a huge 52 percent hike from the previous minimum wage, which had been R69 a day).
Agri WesCape chief executive Carl Opperman said job losses were being experienced across the industry as farmers adopted less labour-intensive models (which yield normal productivity) in the face of the higher input costs associated with the increased wages.
Some farmers have slashed their workforce following the introduction of the minimum wage of R105 a day following last year’s farm strike.
Opperman said one grape farm near Worcester had gone from employing 96 workers to employing 25 this season.
Opperman said relationships, trust and “good faith” between workers and farmers had been compromised by the strikes.
“These relationships have to be rebuilt on a farm-to-farm basis.”
Opperman said that the strikes, coupled with poor infrastructure and concern about government-driven land reform, had led many farmers to invest in farming elsewhere in Africa and overseas. This meant less profit was being reinvested locally - stunting the prospects for growth and employment in the province.
But Karel Swart, general secretary of the Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers Union, accused Opperman of overestimating job losses to undermine the farmworkers’ struggle.
“Many farmers tried to lay off workers, but found they could not do so. The industry needs labour.”
Instead of looking at “productivity models”, farmers were looking at using “underhand” tactics to retrieve money from workers who now had to be paid R105 a day, Swart said. For instance, farmers charged live-in workers higher rates for electricity, rent, transport and groceries (at farm shops).
He criticised the Department of Labour for failing to enforce adherence to the new R105 rate, adding that some farmers flatly refused to pay this. He also said many of the union’s shop stewards had been unfairly dismissed.
“The strikes were a historical moment. For the first time workers realised that the farmers were not so holy, that their abusiveness could be challenged. Through intimidation and underhand tactics, the gains are, however, being reversed and the workers’ self-confidence is at new lows. Some workers feel they are worse off than before.”
The Cape Argus travelled to De Doorns, the genesis of last year’s strike, to investigate how labour relations and the industry had changed in the year since the strikes.
Jacques Beukes the owner of Modderdrift in De Doorns, said he was looking to reach normal productivity targets this season, while using half as many workers. He said productivity bonuses for workers who performed well underpinned the new model.
He added that neighbouring farms were to employ between 25 and 50 percent fewer seasonal workers when harvests begin next month. This could come as a blow to many of the 40 000 seasonal workers. Most of them are unemployed for six months of the year and survive on meagre grants in De Doorns’ informal settlements as they await the start of the labour-intensive harvest.
Last month, the Department of Social Development announced that poverty and malnutrition had reached crisis levels in De Doorns. This precipitated a roll-out of emergency food aid, through the South African Social Security Agency’s offices in Worcester, to De Doorns’ worst-affected families. Without employment and income, an unprecedented number of families may remain food insecure throughout the harvest and packing season.
Last week, Bawusa and the HPA stepped up campaigns lobbying for their differing points of view.
Both purport to represent the majority interests of the valley’s farmworkers. The two groups have, however, become sworn enemies, levelling accusations of corruption and deceit against one another.
In anticipation of Bawusa’s revival of the strike - scheduled for last Friday - the HPA held a “Peace March” to the De Doorns police station on Wednesday. They handed over a memorandum to a representative of Community Safety MEC Dan Plato.
Wilfred Frolick the HPA’s chairman and a farmworker with 21 years experience, said:
“Many workers felt that they had to stand together to avoid being intimidated into joining a new strike.
“The strikes last year hurt us badly because there was a no work, no pay policy. Farmworkers have a tradition of buying new clothes and a good meal for their family at Christmas time. Last year that did not happen. Yet we know Nosey Pieterse and Tony Ehrenreich (Cosatu’s provincial secretary, who addressed farmworkers often at rallies in De Doorns during the strikes) had enough to eat and Christmas presents for their families.”
Frolick accused Pieterse and Ehrenreich of being charlatans who used farmworkers as fodder to further their careers. He conceded, however, that farmworkers’ inability to communicate their grievances over poor wages and conditions to their employers had been a catalyst in last year’s strike.
In September last year, at a time when workers on a number of farms were beginning to mobilise, a letter was sent to Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson. Workers from 10 farms who signed the letter complained about being threatened with dismissal by farmers who refused to negotiate with them and forbade them from meeting to discuss grievances. Frolick argues that this has changed.
“The farmers were shocked by the strikes. As a result there are much more open channels of communication. On many farms conditions have improved. The new wages have made an impact.”
Bawusa’s anniversary rally on Friday flopped. The HPA attributes this to the success of its march and says it is an indication that it does represent the majority view. Bawusa blamed rainy conditions and the paying out of social grants for the poor turn-out at the rally.
The HPA’s amicable stance has endeared it to farmers, who see the association as preferable to Bawusa and its hard line.
Farmers have said Bawusa represents a small minority. Yet farmers have commissioned a temporary armed response unit to be stationed in De Doorns, indicating that they take the threat from Bawusa seriously.
The Cape Argus has also seen an e-mail, circulated among farmers on October 30, which warns workers that they may lose their jobs if they embark on an unprotected strike.
Bawusa calls the HPA a lapdog of the farmers and an enemy of workers. At the Freedom March, ANC councillors in the region, who are aligned with Bawusa, distributed flyers that claimed the group was secretly receiving funding from the DA to undermine workers.
“It is dodgy, is it not?” Bawusa’s De Doorns organiser, Jackie Swartz said, referring to farmers’ support for the HPA.
Police spokesman Captain FC van Wyk said police were prepared to deal with any eventuality aimed at disrupting law and order.
“We have enough resources to address any situation whatsoever.”
Van Wyk said he would not speculate on information and intelligence about potential strikes as operational matters were “best left undisclosed”.