Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson in Parliament. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

AGRICULTURE, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson said she was meeting with President Jacob Zuma last night to get his backing for substantially higher wages for farm workers across the country.

She made this promise to striking farm workers at a rally in De Doorns on Tuesday, following a day of unprecedented labour action by Western Cape farm workers.

Workers from 14 areas in the province joined protest action yesterday in solidarity with De Doorns strikers, in support of their demand for a minimum wage of R150 a day. In many towns, including Ashton, Robertson, Bonnievale, Ceres, Rawsonville and Wellington, public and farm roads were blocked and police were deployed to keep order.

Ms Joemat-Pettersson told workers that talks with employer bodies, including Agri SA and Agri Western Cape in Pretoria on Monday, had failed to yield any offer to increase wages. "Agri SA told us there is no crisis and there is no problem," she said.

But Ms Joemat-Pettersson told the workers that they had "won" their strike because they had made the government listen to them.

"I will speak to President Zuma on your behalf. I will tell the president that we cannot ignore the call of the farm workers. From there we will go to the labour minister to discuss sectoral determinations."

The labour minister would be given two weeks to respond to farm workers on their R150 demand.

"Your victory is that you have brought the government to understand you are important in this country. You will go down in the history books as the people who changed agriculture forever," Ms Joemat-Pettersson said.

Striking workers, who have been backed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and several independent unions since they began their wildcat strike last week, argue that agricultural minimum wages should be differentiated by sector as some products — such as table grapes — are more profitable than others.

Cosatu Western Cape provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich told De Doorns workers on Tuesday that if Mr Zuma indicated that he would back the "fixing of your problems", they could return to work on Wednesday. However, if in two weeks’ time Mr Zuma and the labour minister did not "give you what you need", the strike should resume.

Toyi-toying and shouting struggle slogans, Ms Joemat-Pettersson blamed the farmers’ intransigence on the Democratic Alliance (DA), which she claimed was trying to create an "apartheid colonial state" in the Western Cape.

She said the government would ensure that no farm worker would face criminal or disciplinary charges for their participation in the strike.

"We will speak to the National Prosecuting Authority and the police minister to ensure that all cases of intimidation and public violence are withdrawn."

There was a sense of panic among farmers on Tuesday. Agri Western Cape spokeswoman Porchia Adams said there had been reports of "isolated incidents in different regions".

"Some of it is aggressive, some of it is extremely aggressive," she said.

DA agriculture spokesman Pieter van Dalen said the party visited De Doorns farms on Tuesday and was "shocked to witness a full-blown intimidation campaign being waged by Cosatu" against farm workers who were reluctant to strike.

"So-called organisers were standing on street corners and telling workers that their houses will be burnt or their wives would be raped if they go to work. This threat was carried out on Monday night when a farm worker’s house was burnt.

"It is clear that these ‘strikes’ are politically motivated. They are simply the latest instalment in the African National Congress’s campaign to make the Western Cape ungovernable, known as ‘Project Reclaim’."

© BDlive 2012