28 August 2012

South Africa: De Doorns Farmworkers Protest Slashed Wage

Photo: West Cape News
A fragile peace has descended on De Doorns, in the Western Cape’s Hex River Valley, where the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) is arbitrating between strikers and their employers after protests and wild rampages that saw vineyards burned and shops looted.

Over 300 farmworkers in De Doorns have cried foul over deep cuts in wages following an exporting company taking over management of the farm.

On Monday the seasonal contract workers, comprising mainly locals, Sothos and Zimbabweans, downed tools and marched the five kilometres from De Doorns township where they lived to the Keurboschkloof grape farm to register their grievances.

The workers say their wages were scaled down from a minimum of R90 per day, with R105 and R127 being paid to skilled workers, down to an R64 per day across the board.

They say the wage cuts came about after industry giant South African Fruit Exporters (SAFE) took over the management of the farm following the death of farm owner Pierre Smit in May.

The workers said they signed a five-year contract with Smit before he died, in which he set out wage and working condition guidelines to protect them from being exploited by those who would run the farm in the event of his death.

A farmworker committee member there who did not want to be named as she feared losing her job, said despite Smit having their interests at heart, when SAFE took over the running of the farm their minimum wages were severely cut.

After Monday's protest, she said the workers committee met with farm manager Henry van Zyl and an agreement on a daily wage of daily wage of R100 across the board would be paid in the interim until a permanent solution was reached.

She said to make their case heard they had enlisted the help of rights group Passop (People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty) and the ANC Boland region.

She complained that Van Zyl had a tendency to breach agreements, saying he was most concerned about seeing work being done on the farm.

The workers were also demanding the re-employment of eight of their colleagues who had been sidelined by the new management when the new season started in July.

She said when the group of eight tried to report to work today, Van Zyl called the police to arrest them but intervention from the workers saw them being released.

The group included local men and others from Lesotho who had also signed a five-year contract with Smit.

She said a meeting to iron out their problems was scheduled for tomorrow and if their demands were not met, they would down tools in protest.

Van Zyl declined to comment, referring the issue to SAFE's Cape Town offices.

SAFE's chief financial officer Quinton Scott declined to comment saying they did not have a media officer or anyone to handle the issue, but indicated the matter would be sorted out at today's meeting.

Passop activist in Du Doorns Owen Maromo said they would continue to monitor the situation on the farm.

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