CHAOS: Rioting youths run past a police vehicle in Villiersdorp, Western Cape, on Monday. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
CHAOS: Rioting youths run past a police vehicle in Villiersdorp, Western Cape, last week. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

THE Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) has asked its members in the table grape-growing heartland of the Western Cape to begin returning to work as it seeks negotiations with a farmers’ association.

A statement issued by Fawu general secretary Katishi Masemola on Tuesday said he had met the workers’ leadership, farm shop stewards, on Monday, following a mass meeting in the town of De Doorns, which is at the centre of the Hex River table-grape-growing region.

But Mr Masemola said his members had asked that the union leadership meet the Hex River Table Grape Growers Association (HTA) to negotiate higher wages.

Farm workers in De Doorns and the surrounding areas have been striking and demonstrating for an increase in the daily minimum wage from R69 to R150.

Mr Masemola had also asked the Bawsi Agricultural Workers’ Union of South Africa (Bawusa), which is led by Nosey Pieterse, to call off strike action.

Fawu is an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), while Bawusa is not. However, Cosatu and Bawusa have been co-operating in the strike action so far.

Fawu claims it has about 1,500 members, mostly permanently employed workers, in the area, and Bawusa says it has more than 6,000. Both unions say their memberships have grown since the strike first started in November.

HTA chairman Michael Laubscher said he and his association were willing to talk to the unions and had already met some of them. However, he did say there were several issues that needed to be addressed and that the unions had to understand this.

The first was that the association had no mandate to negotiate wages and could not enforce any agreement.

The HTA deals with technical issues pertaining to table grapes such as yields, sugar levels, machinery and systems. It also acts as a communications link between standards authorities, wholesalers and farmers.

Mr Laubscher said farmers in the area were, for the most part, in competition with one another for labour.

"If a truck arrives from town (De Doorns) with only half the seasonal workers needed, then I know that another farmer is paying a higher wage. There is nothing I can do about that," he said.

Another issue was that of mixed messages.

Mr Laubscher said after a previous meeting with union leaders, they had told their members that the HTA would get back to them within a certain time with a wage offer.

"We cannot do that and have not made any commitment like that as we are not a wage negotiating body. There have been all sorts of rumours that the HTA or I have actively blocked wage increases, but this is not true," he said.

Mr Laubscher said every farmer had to calculate what he could afford individually, and whether he wanted to re-employ those workers who had embarked on an unprotected strike.

He warned that the longer the strike went on, the more dire the consequences for local workers would be.

"People are drifting into the area from other places offering to work on the farms and some farmers are actively recruiting. If this strike goes on, then those returning to work will see other people have taken their jobs and this will just lead to greater social stress," he said.