S. African farmworkers’
strike for wages ‘not over’
Platinum miners win raise after 2-month fight
Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images
Farmworkers in Wolseley, South Africa, Nov. 15, ignore call by government and officials of some unions to suspend strike for two weeks while labor ministry reviews minimum wage.
BY SETH GALINSKY
Thousands of farmworkers in South Africa’s Western Cape are continuing their strike despite the Nov. 14 announcement by the South African minister of labor of an agreement with union officials and farmworker aid organizations for a two-week suspension.
Hundreds of farmworkers have been arrested and charged with “public violence.”
“The strike is not over,” farmworker Mandla Betshe told Agence France-Presse the next day, in a video posted on YouTube. “We are going forward no matter what. We say 150 after deductions.”
Betshe was referring to the strikers’ demand to raise the minimum wage of 70 rand a day ($7.90) to 150 rand. Over the last year the price of sugar, oil and cereals rose more than 10 percent, and the price of mealie meal, the region’s basic food staple, has jumped as much as 63.9 percent. But the minimum wage went up only 5 rand.
After the strike began Nov. 5, farm owners offered to raise the minimum wage to 80 rand, claiming any more would force them out of business.
“The wages are far too little. The prices of milk, of mealie meal, of sugar are going up,” Banga Behane, a pseudonym for a Zimbabwean immigrant who asked that his real name not be used for fear of reprisals, said in a phone interview Nov. 18. “This farm grows lemons, oranges and persimmons for export. The farmers drive the latest model cars, expensive cars. Look at the type of houses they live in. They can afford to pay.”
Behane, a supervisor at a farm in De Doorns, earns 70 rand a day. Behane said he joined the strike because “if you cannot help the people you work with, you must join them.”
Estimates on the number of farmworkers in the Western Cape range from 120,000 to 200,000. While most are South African natives, there are also thousands of immigrants from Zimbabwe and Lesotho. The heart of the strike has been in the grape vineyards, but the province is also a major producer of peaches, citrus and wheat.
“One of the biggest challenges the workers face is labor brokering,” Mercia Andrews, a spokesperson for Mawubuye, a group that works with small farmers and farmworkers, told the Militant. “The brokers bring in workers who don’t get housing and probably earn 50 or 60 rand a day because the labor broker takes his cut. They live in the informal settlements.”
“The worker who lives on the farm is dependent on the farmer for housing and for transport into town to buy food as there’s no public transport in many rural areas,” Andrews said. “They buy food from the farmer’s small shop. The farmer sometimes deducts all this from the workers’ pay.”
“The farmers try to exploit the situation of many of the foreign-born workers,” said Anthony Muteti, a community organizer with People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty, a group that works with immigrant workers. “They try to get them to accept any kind of work at any kind of wages. By paying different wages they try to divide the farmworkers by nationality.”
After the strike started a coalition of unions, farmworker committees, and nongovernmental organizations joined together to support the workers’ demands. The coalition includes the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which is allied with the African National Congress government; the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union, which is allied with the Democratic Left Front, an opposition coalition; Women on Farms Project; Mawubuye and other organizations.
About a week into the strike, COSATU and some coalition members called for a suspension of the walkout for two weeks while the government reviews the minimum wage. Mawubuye and other coalition members opposed the suspension.
“Very few workers are in the unions. Of all these workers that we managed to address as part of getting them to understand the need to go back to work, some have gone back but the majority have rejected the plea,” Katishi Masemola, general secretary of the Food and Allied Workers Union, a COSATU-member union, told the Militant. He also noted the impact of strikes by 100,000 mine workers across the country that peaked in October.
“Let me say that the spark that gave rise to the widespread strikes in the mining sector found its expression in De Doorns and then spread like wildfire throughout the Western Cape,” Masemola said.
The strike is a “wake-up call,” he stated. “De Doorns, where this strike started, is the same farming town where four years ago there were xenophobic attacks by local South Africans on foreign nationals, accusing them of working cheap or taking jobs that undercut wages. Now local as well as foreign workers from Zimbabwe and Lesotho have joined forces and united and sustained this strike action.”
“Never before has there been a strike in the farming industry of this nature,” Carmen Louw, a spokesperson for Women on Farms Project, said in a phone interview. “The farming industry will never be the same.”
Platinum miners end strike
Meanwhile, 28,000 miners at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) in the North West province returned to work Nov. 15 after a two-month strike.
After repeatedly stating it had dismissed the strikers, Amplats finally agreed to a one-time payment of 4,500 rand to each miner, a pretax wage increase of 400 rand a month and to take no reprisals against returning strikers.
While this is far short of the 8,000 rand a month increase that strikers had demanded, “every worker is happy because this is the first time since a 1996 strike that we won something at Amplats,” miner and strike committee member Evans Ramokga said in a phone interview. “In 1996 the strikers were dismissed, some of them jailed.
“We must retreat to organize more, to bring up more strategies. We still have a lot of work to do.”
On the Picket Line