PROTEST: Farm workers at De Doorns in the Western Cape in November last year. Picture: SOWETAN
PROTEST: Farm workers at De Doorns in the Western Cape in November last year. Picture: SOWETAN

A FIRM commitment to negotiate, and perhaps an improved offer within the next two days, could still avert the resumption of the farm workers’ strike in the Western Cape which is set to resume on Wednesday, Western Cape Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) leader Tony Ehrenreich said on Sunday.

The table grape farms in De Doorns were hit by violent strikes in late November and these soon spread to other sectors in the Western Cape. There are fears that renewed strikes in the agricultural sector in the Western Cape could spread to other provinces.

Workers are demanding R150 a day. The daily minimum wage for farm workers, primarily seasonal ones, is about R68 a day. Workers say this is a starvation wage while farmers insist that in reality very few workers, either permanent or seasonal, earn the national minimum.

Mr Ehrenreich said on Sunday that there was always a possibility of averting the resumption of the strike. "Committing to negotiate would be something to make progress and workers would have to respond. And new offers on the table would help", he said.

However chairman of Agri SA’s labour committee Anton Rabe indicated that this could not happen, saying: "There is no way that on a national basis we can commit individual producers to a particular wage offer. In reality the producers are paying more than the national minimum.

"This not about the permanent workers, it is about the seasonal workers, and a solution can be found but not with a gun to the head of farmers."

On the issue of the possibility of the strike again turning violent, with huge potential losses as a result of the Western Cape being tinder dry after weeks of hot weather, Mr Ehrenreich said: "Of course no-one wants violence or damage to property".

He pointed out, however, that the original protests had come from the workers themselves and not from trade unions. "The unions came in later to try and give the protest some structure. He said the farm workers were furious with Cosatu for calling off the strike in December and this had been a great political risk for the union federation.

He took aim at the government and organised agriculture for failing to take advantage of the space gained by suspending the strike in December. He also pointed out that workers, and not the unions, had increased the pressure by calling for an international boycott of Western Cape agricultural products.

Mr Rabe, also commenting on the potential for violence said: "Yes, there is a danger, but hopefully (the farm workers) will refrain from that." He added that there had been irresponsible demands from parties that had nothing to do with agriculture and that much of what was being demanded was unrealistic. He urged all involved to follow the legal framework, be responsible and find a lasting solution.

While Mr Ehrenreich said some farmers’ associations were increasingly unhappy with the leadership being provided by Agri SA, Mr Rabe said that "in his personal view" there had been massive amounts of political opportunism in the strikes.