THE Employment Conditions Commission, which makes recommendations on minimum wages, looks set to suggest a new minimum wage of about R105 a day for farm workers — a hefty rise of more than 50%.
Farm workers last week called off their strike in the Western Cape, but the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has threatened to rekindle it, claiming farmers are dismissing their workers for being absent from work.
According to research on which the recommendation is based, the wage increase will lead to higher prices for some products in the short to medium term — and significant job losses.
In the long term, it is envisaged that agriculture will experience "structural adjustment" away from the cheap labour model to one that is more concentrated, mechanised and employs better-paid workers.
The commission, comprising independent experts and representatives of the government, business and labour, has not made its recommendation public.
Chairwoman Ingrid Woolard said on Monday that the commission was conveying its recommendation to Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, who will either approve it or send it back for further deliberation.
Ms Oliphant was expected to make an announcement within days, her spokesman, Musa Zondi, said on Monday.
Speculation is widespread in union and business circles that the recommendation will be for R100 to R105 a day. The daily minimum wage is now R69.
Employers are adamant that any wage higher than R85 a day will result in labour-intensive commodities — such as fruit and vegetables — being rendered unviable and lead to large-scale job losses.
Research for the commission by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy found that even if wages were R150 a day, as some demand, most farm-worker households could not give their families enough nutrition to be considered food-secure.
"There is some scope to increase the minimum wage," the bureau’s report read. "From the analysis, however, it is evident that if average wages increase by more than R20 a day (to about R104 a day) many of the typical farms will be unable to cover their operating expenses and hence not be able to pay back borrowings or afford entrepreneurs’ remuneration."
Agri SA president Johan Moller said talk "was widespread" that the commission had settled on a R105 minimum. Agricultural employers would appeal to Ms Oliphant to set the minimum at between R80 and R85.
"The Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy research says that R105 a day is the maximum level that agriculture can afford. You can’t set the entry-level (wage) at the maximum."
Mr Moller said commercial farmers who could afford it would be encouraged by Agri SA to "pay more than the minimum wage and to develop proper structures for wages in which a person can move and improve himself".
Trade unionists have negotiated several one-on-one farm deals that have set R105 a day as the new minimum.
Cosatu Western Cape secretary Tony Ehrenreich said on Monday the government would need to step in to raise "the social wage" — including better living conditions and cheaper basic services.
Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa leader Nosey Pieterse said: "(The) government should come up with something much better than that (R105). We have been able to achieve that several times, without even a push."