Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, flanked by Cosatu provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich, addresses strikers in De Doorns. Picture: Jerome Abed

Cape Town - Recent farmworker protests over poor labour conditions have changed South Africa's history, Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson said on Monday.

“We cannot wish away our problems, we cannot be in denial. We have to face up to challenges… in our country,” she said at a New Age breakfast in Johannesburg.

“This is exactly why I said it's a historic moment in agriculture. If you do not stand up for your own rights, no one will recognise your pain and agony.”

She said research reports by the Human Rights Commission since the late ’90s had highlighted atrocities in the sector, particularly in the North West and Western Cape, where recent protests were held over wages and living conditions.

The reports showed workers were living in inadequate shelters and were subject to racial and gender abuse.

“All farmers are not abusive. There are very good farmers. But farmers think that if they pay a basic salary and they have paid the minimum wage requirement, they have done enough,” Joemat-Pettersson said.

She acknowledged that not all farmers would be able to afford a wage demand of R150, up from the R70 daily wage set in law.

“Our (agriculture) production costs in this country are very high and this includes the cost of fuel, electricity and fertiliser,” she said.

She said, however, that it was “criminal” to pass on this cost of production to farmworkers.

The minister agreed that the perception of very high profit margins in agriculture was not entirely accurate.

“The profit margins in agriculture are actually very small. There are different commodities which are obviously more lucrative.”

She said these perceptions were based on workers who witnessed their employers go on luxurious holidays and drive fancy cars, while they remained in their shacks.

“Those inequalities will never go missed.” - Sapa