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Sat Nov 01 08:09:25 SAST 2014

Three dead, millions in damages - for R36

PHILANI NOMBEMBE and TJ STRYDOM | 05 February, 2013 00:09
Striking farmworkers in De Doorns, Western Cape, in December. Their union is disappointed about the new minimum wage announced yesterday Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Image by: Foto24 / Denzil Maregele / Gallo Images

Weeks of bloody protests, three deaths and millions of rands in damages to property culminated in R36 extra a day in the pockets of Western Cape farmworkers.

After Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant yesterday increased the minimum wage from R69 to R105 a day, neither farmworkers nor farmers were happy.

Nosey Pieterse, secretary of the Builders' and Allied Worker's Union of SA, which was at the centre of the wage strike, dismissed the increase as cold comfort for the families of those who sacrificed their lives and others who starved for a better future.

Michael Daniels, of Wolseley, Bongile Ndleni, of Prince Alfred Hamlet, and Letsekang Thokoane, of De Doorns, were killed during the strike, which started in November.

But the workers were not the only ones who suffered. Farms were set alight, production was severely affected and shops were looted during the strike as workers and youths engaged in running battles with the police.

Daniels, a tractor driver and father of one, died in hospital in November after police allegedly shot at strikers. His family and friends said he was not among the protesters. He had gone to watch the standoff between the police and the workers in town.

In the same month, 40-year-old Ndleni was found dead in his home. Police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Andre Traut said he was shot by "individuals driving an LDV". He said there was no evidence to suggest that Ndleni died as a result of police action.

Last month, Thokoane was struck in the head by rubber bullets allegedly fired by police. He died in hospital.

Pieterse said more than 400 farmworkers were facing intimidation and public violence charges and some had lost their jobs.

"The R105 is what is currently being negotiated on the farms and we expected the minister to do better than that," said Pieterse.

"We will have a very difficult task to get workers to accept this. The strike might resume because it was only suspended."

AgriSA chairman Johannes Möller said the 52% increase would take the total wage bill of the agricultural sector from R14-billion to more than R21-billion.

"There will be retrenchments on a large scale because farmers simply cannot absorb the extra R7-billion that comes with a minimum wage of R105," said Möller.

Oliphant said the new minimum wage would start next month.

"This is also a testament to the government's resolve to respond appropriately to the plight of those who are vulnerable in society.

"Without doubt, farmworkers and domestic workers fall within this group and this department will do its utmost to ensure that we make not only their lives better, but design a better deal for labour in general," Oliphant said.

Farmworkers went on strike in November. Things turned violent, production facilities on farms in Paarl and Worcester, and a packing shed in Wellington, were destroyed.

Farms run by black economic empowerment beneficiaries did not escape the violence - 14 suffered about R8.2-million in damages in December.

The Labour Department intervened and reviewed the statutory minimum wage for the sector.

Though the likes of trade union federation Cosatu and Pieterse put up a united front during the strike, they yesterday sang from different hymn sheets. Cosatu welcomed the new deal.

AgriSA's Möller said some agricultural industries could disappear completely as the increase in the minimum wage took hold.

He said the higher minimum wage would cost jobs, change many positions from permanent to temporary and lose the government tax revenue as farmers made losses.

Farmers have already started limiting their exposure to labour-cost spikes by employing more temporary workers.

"The way things are now, farmers in Western Cape have started looking at wine cultivars that are the least labour-intensive," said Möller.

The ANC and the UDM welcomed Oliphant's decision to raise the minimum wage. But Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder said the R105 minimum wage would lead to large-scale job loses and force farmers to mechanise.

Mulder said farmers will be forced to recalculate their wages bill and that the prices they were paid for agricultural products would not increase at the same rate.

The Transvaal Agricultural Union said the increase "will harm the country", sour labour relations and hit consumers.

It said small and emerging farmers would be the worst hit.

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