Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. Picture: GCIS
Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant addresses reporters on Monday. Picture: GCIS

THE new minimum wage for farm workers is R105 a day, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant said on Monday. The new rate — R36 more than the current minimum wage of R69 a day — will take effect from March 1.

"The new minimum wage ... is R105 per day for employees who work nine hours a day, or R11.66 per hour, R525 weekly or R2,274.82 per month," Ms Oliphant told reporters in Pretoria.

The new sectoral determination will be promulgated for a three-year period. In the second and third year, wages will be increased by the consumer price index, as a measure of inflation, plus 1.5%.

Employers have warned, however, 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.

The labour minister’s announcement followed countrywide public hearings on a new minimum wage for the agriculture sector, prompted by violent protests in parts of the Western Cape.

Farm workers in the region have demanded a minimum wage of R150 a day. They called off their strike in the province last month, 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.

A recent research paper by researcher Ben Stanwix, of the University of Cape Town’s development policy research unit, showed that agricultural wages in the Western Cape were typically higher than anywhere else in the country and were on average well above the minimum.

Using labour force survey data from Statistics South Africa, Mr Stanwix showed that between 2000 and 2007, farm workers in the Western Cape and Gauteng received the highest wages of all farm workers in South Africa, at levels that were close to or above the rural minimum wage. But farm workers in the North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Free State were the most poorly paid, with the average employee getting less than the minimum wage between 2003 and 2007.

On Monday, Ms Oliphant said economic analysis by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy had found that if the average wage of farm workers increased to more than R104.98 per day, "many farms will be unable to cover their operating expenses, and hence not be able to pay back borrowings or to afford entrepreneurs’ remuneration".

The bureau’s study also showed "that the real problem is that even at what seems to be an unaffordable minimum wage of R150 per day, most households cannot provide the nutrition that is needed" for food security.

"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."

According to Mr Stanwix’s research paper, although wages have been increasing over time and more farmers are falling into line, compliance with minimum wage legislation remains weak. This, he said, was because the chances of being visited by a labour inspector were small and the fines — based on a percentage of the underpayment — were insignificant.

Cosatu welcomed Monday’s wage announcement, but said it would not signal the end of efforts to improve the plight of farm workers.

“Cosatu welcomes this agreement, but it is not enough,” said Tony Ehrenreich, the labour federation’s Western Cape secretary, adding that the agriculture sector as a whole should be transformed to improve relations on farms and between farmers and the state. “There is an attitude of hostility between farmers and their workers, and to some extent between the government and farmers.”

With Sapa and Carol Paton