Protesters in De Doorns have downed tools and staged a sit-in protest. Picture: Thomas Holder

Cape Town - In a move described as “courageous” and “unprecedented for the Boland region”, workers at Keurboschkloof export grape farm outside De Doorns downed tools and staged a sit-in protest at the gates of the farm on Monday.

“In farm workers we are dealing with the most disempowered and vulnerable sector of South Africa’s labour market,” said Fatima Shabodien, former executive director of Women on Farms and director of ActionAid, an NGO dealing with human rights in SA.

“Historically they have lacked the unity, power and co-ordination to stage concerted and successful strike action. Small flare ups are easily broken up by employers with threats and intimidation.

“Globally unionisation rates amongst farmworkers are around 5 percent. In South Africa this is even lower, (this makes their bargaining position rather weak).”

On Monday, the vast majority of the farm’s 300 permanent employees brought water bottles, snack packs and umbrellas, to the entrance of Keurboschkloof and said they would stage a sit-in until their demands were met.

Brandishing placards with messages directed at their employers, the SA Fruit Exporters (Safe), toyi-toyied at the entrance to the farm.

They are protesting against attempts by Safe (which has a five-year contract to manage Keurboschkloof) to cut their wages.

In July this year, Safe announced that it would drop the tiered wages of R90, R105, R110 and R127 a day to a flat rate of R64 for most of the workers (a figure that is in line with the industry minimum), explained Cynthia Malotana, a single mother of three who has worked on the farm for 18 years.

Shabodien said the scenario described by Malotana amounted to a breach of the Labour Relations Act.

After a strike by workers on August 27, a deal was brokered whereby a flat rate of R100 a day would be paid pending the outcome of an interim period of negotiation. Last Friday, at the end of the negotiations, Safe announced that all but 20 of the staff would be dismissed, said Malotana.

This news lead to Monday’s strike. Workers are demanding a pay increase to R2 887 a month (R137 a day).

Safe was employed to take over the farm’s management when owner Pierre Smit took ill last year. Smit promised his workers that their contracts, pay and conditions of employment would not change under the management of the new company.

An audio recording of this promise was made by one of the workers.

Safe sent a message to the workers on Monday afternoon, saying that they would be fired if they did not return to work on Tuesday morning.

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Cape Argus