This year has seen a labour revolt in South Africa. From the dramatic wildcat action that shut down the mining industry and lead to the Marikana massacre, to widespread official and unofficial action in other sectors, South African workers have run out …

Walton Pantland

This year has seen a labour revolt in South Africa. From the dramatic wildcat action that shut down the mining industry and lead to the Marikana massacre, to widespread official and unofficial action in other sectors, South African workers have run out of patience. Eighteen years after the end of apartheid, they are tired of waiting for a better life, and have taken to the streets and workplaces to demand it.

The past six weeks has seen unrest spread to fruit farms in the Western Cape province, where agricultural workers growing produce for major Western supermarkets – notably Tesco – live in serf-like conditions that have changed little for centuries. And while some farmers are good employers who provide decent conditions and pay, they are frequently undercut by an increasingly mechanised agri-business. Fair Trade organisations are working hard with unions to improve the situation, but in many cases it is an uphill struggle.

The unrest on the West Cape farms has seen vineyards burnt, and violent clashes leading to at least one death. At issue is the workers’ refusal to accept the current minimum wage of R69 (£5) per day – the are demanding R150 (£11). Rising food costs, the loss of security of tenure, mechanisation, and downward pressure on wages due to immigration from other African countries have all raised tensions.

The negotiations between labour unions and farmer employer associations have broken down because, according to the union Sikhula Sonke

“…farmer organisations are not serious about giving farm workers an increase in wages. Though there has been farm worker protest action in the Western Cape for the past six weeks employer associations have not once come to the negotiating table in good faith and put a substantive daily wage on the table. This behaviour shows us that the majority of the farmers wants to continue in paying our farm workers a slavery wage of R69 a day.”

The union statement is worth reading in full:
The R69 a day is a minimum wage that is set down by the Minister of Labour on recommendation from the Employment Conditions Commission. As unions we have always criticised this process because it is flawed and in the interest of farmer employer associations, because the public hearings held by the Department of Labour is not accessible for workers to attend. In the past the Department of Labour would hold one public hearing per province. In these hearings we have found that only farmer organisations would attend these meetings and make their submissions. In the case of workers we found that farmers would bring along workers whom they intimidate to say that they are earning enough.

With the R69 minimum wage set down in the Sectoral Determination we find that farmers are claiming that it is government that has set down the minimum wages and that most farmers are paying more than the minimum wage. This is true in a few cases such as in some of the big tourist wine or other export farms that are TESCO, WIETA, Fairtrade, etc accredited. Our findings in the field however is that even when farmer associations such as Agri-SA is saying that they are paying more than the minimum wage per day – “more than” could mean 20 cents more. Case in point for example our president Sarah Claasen is earning 99 cents more than the minimum wage. The other common issue we find is that farmers say that they pay much more than the minimum wage but if one looks at all the deductions and take-home pay we find that the majority of our members’ take home pay amounts to between R200 and R300 per week after deductions such as rent, electricity, transport, groceries bought from the farmer and in a few cases – provident fund. So in these cases one can clearly see that the majority of cases where farmers are claiming to be paying more than the minimum wages it is a farce as the increase is being deducted and find its way back into the farmers’ pockets.

We are currently experiencing that business and government is hiding behind the legalities of the changing of the Sectoral minimum wage determination which is legally only due for review in March 2013. Furthermore, government and business is bullying our farm worker unions into farm level negotiations until 9 January 2013 in order to bring about labour peace and a stable economy in the sector over the festive season period. We know that this is not an ideal situation as only 10% of farm workers are unionised nationally and that it would be impossible to reach the majority of farm workers before the 9 January deadline and that the un-unionised farm workers will suffer in this arrangement as the majority of our farm workers will be intimidated and misled in farm level negotiations by their employers.

The rallying call of R150 minimum wage per day is not a living wage but it is a good place to start with an increase of farm workers wages. Apart from the wage and benefits issues we are also calling for improvements to the living conditions of farm workers.

  • Sikhula Sonke calls on all its members and stakeholders to support our call for an increase from R69 to R150 per day as a minimum wage.
  • To help our workers put pressure on business and government to negotiate in good faith and give in to our short term and medium term demands as set our below.
  • We further call on our supporters and friends around the globe to put pressure on the agricultural wine and produce supply chains to put pressure on local farmer associations to pay our farm workers the R150 per day as a minimum wage, to support the farm workers struggle for decent work, decent lives and ethical trade in the agricultural sector.

Our demands for the negotiations are as follows:Before Negotiations starts Labour and Business first need to agree on the following to bring about labour peace:



  • The dropping of all charges brought against farm workers
  • The halting of all dismissals of permanent, contract, casual, migrant and labour contract workers
  • The reinstatement of dismissed workers as a consequence of strike action
  • Where evictions have taken place as a consequence of strike action those farm workers and families must return to their houses
  • No retrenchments should happen
  • An inquiry into the SAPS/Justice System/Private Security Guards’ actions and behaviours in suppressing the labour demands and rights
  • No victimisation and or deportation of migrant workers by farmers
  • Ensure access to medical treatment at public health facilities for injured striking farm workers as some victims of police brutality have been refused assistance at their local clinics and hospitals
  • Withdrawal of written warnings and disciplinary action that has arisen during the strike period

Substantive Issues

  • Labour demand a minimum wage of R150,00 per day (8 hour working day)
  • Full maternity benefits for all workers including seasonal workers
  • End To Wage Discrimination and the principle of Equal pay for equal work be introduced
  • That all housing contracts are entered into with both partners’ names and that women in particular have rights to tenure in the event of a spouse or partner passing on, or losing his job.
  • 40 hours a week for farm workers
  • Safe and decent Farm Worker Transport for farm workers to and from work and town
  • Freedom of Association, stopping of anti-union activity and granting of unified organisational rights regime
  • No deductions for rent of siblings and dependants over the age of 18 years.
  • No deductions for domestic water and electricity usage including gardening
  • The introduction of job grading and pay scales for all workers
  • That a provident fund be set up for all farm workers
  • The setting up of a bargaining / statutory council in the agricultural sector
  • Moratorium on all Evictions
  • A ban on the use of labour Brokers as this form of employment undermine the regulatory framework of farm workers employment conditions
  • That a seasonal worker desk be set up by the DoL that keeps a data-base, track and service seasonal workers’ needs, i.e. to be registered for UIF and be granted permanent seasonal worker’s status.
  • The setting up of an inter-ministerial committee and define the role of agricultural sector in Nedlac that specifically look at farm worker and dweller issues, and that a fund be set up to support activities of unions towards unionization of the sector
  • That the child grant be made accessible for farm worker communities
  • Create a fund to assist with alcohol and substance abuse, foetal alcohol syndrome and gender base violence
  • Access to farms related to social needs of farm worker families
  • Transformation and structural changes be brought about in the agricultural sector speedily
  • Free accessible Health Care for Farm Workers

Forward to Decent Work and Decent Lives For Farm Workers and Dwellers

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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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