It’s been an interesting week in the Robertson wine valley. The unrest we wrote about in last weeks’ blog has now arrived on our doorstep. It has created considerable distress on both sides.
During the night of Monday 12 November bus loads of protesters arrived in Robertson. Violent protests began on Tuesday and continued into Wednesday. The protesters marched from the gathering point of the roundabout in Robertson, through the vineyards and the farms. As they moved they intimated local farm workers as well as ignoring the rights of private landowners.
The Democratic Alliance is appealing to police and the farming communities to be on the look-out for agitators being bussed into towns for the purpose of criminal activity. They have noted a pattern emerging in many Western Cape towns that suggests agitators are exploiting the legitimate concerns of farm workers to add a criminal element to the protests. In the Theewaterskloof area, a pamphlet being distributed suggests that the ANC is paying a select number of agitators to perform specific tasks of an unconfirmed nature. The pamphlet thanks those who took part in the protest and informs them that they may take their ID books along to collect R150 from a list of five people. Thus it would appear to be a deliberate attempt to escalate the chaos in certain areas, backed by ANC resources. The Eastern Cape branch of the ANC has gone so far as to call for a wine boycott. Such self imposed sanctions seem to be cutting your nose off to spite your face and in any case De Doorns produces table grapes, not wine.
AgriSA, which speaks on behalf of farmers, remains committed to the view that the increasingly violent strike action is not just about pay; ‘Other factors include, among others, a strive for competing unions to get a foothold in agriculture, tension between the work status of Lesotho and Zimbabweans due to a differentiated position by the government in this regard, the mobilising of unemployed and persons unrelated to the issue for political gain and unsatisfactory service delivery by local government structures in the informal sector.’ This view is repeated by trade union Solidarity, which says that the unrest ‘is not really a strike’.
The minimum wage for farm workers is R70, which was set six months ago by Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. According to Treasury, 55.1% of South Africans earned below R1720 per household (in 2006 prices). Assuming two members of the household work then R70 a day comes to a minimum of R2800 a month. Still, R70 a day is a paltry sum if considered in isolation. It’s the bare minimum a worker can receive but many receive much more. At Excelsior our wages are based on a basic salary topped up with bonuses for attending work on a regular basis and extra income provided through piece work. We also provide our farm workers with decent housing, gardens, solar heating, a play school, out of work clubs (rugby and netball), remedial teachers for the children, a scholarship fund to wholly fund any child who demonstrates academic ability to study beyond matriculation, ground to raise cattle and subsidized electricity. But let’s be honest, not all farms do the same although fortunately those that provide the bare minimum are in the minority.
COSATU, headed by the charismatic if morally vicarious Tony Ehrenreich, calls for mass action against the ‘exploitation’ of farm workers. Tina Joemat-Pettersson , the national Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, is quoted (through her spokesperson Palesa Mokomele on Twitter) as saying that through the strikes the farm workers have demonstrated that they will no longer be ‘oppressed’ and ‘treated like slaves’. They deserve ‘basic human rights’ and that ‘we cannot have a province where there is still Apartheid’.
Let’s not pretend that the South African wine (and grape) industry doesn’t have a tarnished history of labour relations. Slavery was abolished in 1838 but de facto slavery with in-kind payments, often with alcohol (known as the dop system), was relatively widespread until the end of the twentieth century. It is not in existence today – apart from being totally illegal it is also clearly morally wrong. In fact, Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape, has vowed to personally prosecute anyone discovered to be involved.
Farmers are not monsters. References to ‘slavery’ and ‘Apartheid’ don’t address the modern reality nor do they tackle the two core economic issues: 1) that R70 per person per day might not be very much but it is still higher than median wage 2) that improving farming technology is increasingly allowing farm owners to substitute capital (machines) for labour which would only add to South Africa’s massive oversupply of labour.
In a poll taken by Pondering Panda it appears that 72% of South Africans ‘felt there was no evidence to suggest that government’s plans for dealing with labour unrest were working’ and 70% think the government ‘should take responsibility for strike violence and stop blaming the past.’
Increasing the minimum wage is, at best, going to be short-term solution. It’s not difficult to see that in the medium run a higher minimum wage will destroy jobs. If Minister Joemat-Pettersson and Mr Ehrenreich are serious about helping farm workers, they should tackle another legacy of Apartheid – the appallingly poor performance of rural schools.
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