SouthAfrica.info (Johannesburg)

11 January 2013

South Africa: Farmers, Workers 'Must Negotiate'

South African Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant has called on striking workers, unions and farmers in the Western Cape to settle their disputes through negotiation, to exercise their rights responsibly and to refrain from violence.

The minister's call, made on Friday, follows attempts by Labour Director-General Nkosinathi Nhleko to broker a peace deal between trade unions and Agri-SA in Cape Town. The department said the attempt seems to have been rejected by farm owners' representatives.

There have reportedly been sporadic cases of violence, including the closing of national roads, since the industrial action began on Wednesday.

Oliphant said that while farmworkers had every right to demonstrate, violence undermined their cause. She called for good leadership on the part of the labour movement in the sector.

"I would also like to remind the leadership in the province that the current action is unprocedural and therefore the workers are not protected by labour laws. They have to think carefully about what they are exposing workers to and whether in the end it is worth their while," Oliphant said.

"I would also like to call on the farmers to engage their workers on the best way forward. At the end of the day, the main thing is negotiation between employer and employee, and so far I am not convinced that there is a serious attempt by farmers to negotiate."

The workers are demanding a daily wage of R150. Currently, the minimum wage, as set out in the agricultural sector determination, is R69.

Agri-SA has said it has no mandate to negotiate in the matter and that the demands were "unrealistic" and would drive its members out of business.

At the same time, farmers in the Western Cape have not been forthcoming in terms of putting a counter-offer on the table. Instead, they have been insisting on a sectoral determination process, which is under way by the Labour Department.

The strike takes place parallel with the public hearings process through which the department is soliciting views from labour and business about the new sectoral determination, due to kick in at the beginning of March.

The process will be consolidated by the Employment Conditions Commission (ECC), the body which advises the minister on wages and conditions of employment, for her final decision.

Oliphant said it was unfortunate that farmers had sought to negate the principle of negotiations and collective bargaining. "This does not augur well for stability and industrial peace in the sector."

For their part, unions have said workers have "borne the brunt of economic violence" from employers in the form of "slave wages", and alleged that some workers had not being paid over the festive season.

During November's farmworker strikes, there were reports of damage to property, with 271 workers arrested for public violence and heightened tension on the farms as employers brought in private security.

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