11 January 2013

South Africa: Labour Minister Calls for Restraint in Farmworker Protests in the Western Cape

press release

The Minister of Labour has called upon the parties in the Western Cape agricultural sector to settle their industrial disputes through talking and negotiations.

At the same time, Minister Mildred Oliphant, has also called on striking farm workers and their leadership in the Western Cape to exercise their rights responsibly and to refrain from committing violent acts.

Already, reports have indicated sporadic cases of violence including the closing of national roads since the industrial action began on January 9.

The Minister's call follows attempts by her Director-General, Nkosinathi Nhleko, to broker a peace deal between trade unions and Agri-SA in Cape Town - an attempt which seemed to have been spurned by the representatives of the farm owners.

Oliphant said: "While farm workers have every right to demonstrate, violence destroys their cause. I therefore, call for exemplary display of good leadership on the part of the labour movement in the sector. Leaders really need to lead at this time".

"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.

"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."

At the heart of the dispute is the demand for a daily wage hike 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 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 underway by DoL.

It's unfortunate that farmers have sought to negate the principle of negotiations and collective bargaining. This does not auger 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 some workers "not being paid over the Festive Season.

The strike also 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.

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

Issued by: Department of Labour

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