The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 76/No. 47      December 24, 2012

S. African farmworkers’ strikes
end, but wages fight is not over
Recent strikes by farmworkers throughout South Africa’s Western Cape have ended for now. While workers didn’t win the wage increase they were fighting for, they were not defeated and have gained experience for the inevitable battles ahead.

Thousands of farmworkers across the Western Cape went on strike Nov. 5 demanding an increase to 150 rand a day ($17) from the current official minimum of 69 rand. Most strikers went back to work by Nov. 19 after government officials promised to review the minimum wage by Dec. 4, and officials of the pro-government Congress of South African Trade Unions and its affiliate the Food and Allied Workers Union urged workers to end the walkout, saying they would back a new strike if the demands were not met.

Within days after this first round of strikes subsided, the Ministry of Labor rapidly reneged on its promise, saying no review was possible until next year. Capitalist farm owners, however, immediately began beefing up private security on their farms and intimidating workers.

“One thousand workers were fired after the strike,” said Owen Maromo, an organizer with People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty, which works with immigrant workers.

Phumla Tsheko, 21, a mushroom worker, is one of those fired. “The boss said I was the one doing the talking,” she told the Militant by phone.

Tsheko said she was paid only 60 rand a day, despite the official minimum. She doesn’t believe the farm owners who say they can’t afford to pay 150 rand.

“If you can afford to farm, you can afford to pay us,” she said. Referring to strikes by tens of thousands of mineworkers from August to November, Tsheko added, “The mineworkers gave the farmworkers pride, to say that we are human beings.”

On Dec. 4—with no raise in their wages—thousands of workers went on strike again. But that evening COSATU Western Cape Provincial Secretary Tony Ehrenreich announced the strike was over. He said that farm owners had agreed to negotiate, farm by farm, and that the more profitable farms should pay higher wages and share profits. Workers then returned to the fields.

“There are good farmers and bad farmers,” Food and Allied Workers Union organizer Sandile Keni said in a phone interview. “The farmers who cannot afford to pay more must prove it to us.”

“This is not a victory for farmworkers,” Carmen Louw, a spokesperson for Women on Farms Project in the Western Cape, told the Militant. “This agreement is what the farmers have been suggesting all along.”

Louw explained some of the challenges to organizing farmworkers, less than 10 percent of whom belong to any union.

“It is difficult because of the spatial reality. Farms are far apart, often on gravel roads. You need four-wheel drive all terrain vehicles to get there,” she said. “The farmers’ security guards try to intimidate us. They don’t allow us on the farms to talk to the workers, even though many workers live there. And the police threaten to arrest us, sometimes detain us for 48 hours.”

Louw and other farmworker organizers told the Militant this harassment stepped up after the first strike. Some workers arrested on strike-related charges are still in jail.

“While native-born South African farmworkers arrested during the strike have mostly been released,” Maromo said, “in De Doorns there are still 19 workers from Zimbabwe and 15 from Lesotho in jail. Many other foreign-born workers from Zimbabwe were already deported.”

Even though their demands were not met, Maromo said, “I believe the farmworkers learned something, but we need some people that can lead a strike properly.” He said some farmworkers were discussing how to prepare for another strike in January.
Related articles:
Illinois miner tells story of fight for safety on job
Tunisian unions strike, answer attacks from pro-gov’t Islamists
Bosses ‘didn’t want union,’ close mine after worker killed
Factory fires in S. Asia show need for union in safety fight  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home