History of Labour Movements in South Africa

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Striking workers in De Doorn, 2012 Image source

The Western Cape Farm Workers Strike 2012-2013

According to a study, titled Sleeping giant is stirring: Farmworkers in South Africa, the farmworker population in the Western Cape make up the highest number of workers in South Africa in the fruit and wine industry. In 2012, out of an estimated 603 000 farm workers were employed in South Africa; the Western Cape had an estimated 121 000 farm workers employed in the fruit and wine industries. On average, the minimum wage for the sector was R69 a day in 2012, however many workers were paid less than R69 daily. Farmworkers in the Western Cape depend on the farm owners for their incomes, as well as other necessities such as children’s school clothing and fuel for winter. Many permanent workers live on the farms they work, frequently in poor living conditions. Casual, seasonal and permanent workers live in poor conditions, exacerbated by the increasing cost of living caused by inflation, where workers already struggle with food insecurity, a lack of access to nutritional food.  

A number of exploitative practices are common on farms in the Western Cape. Many Workers pay electricity, water and rent to farm owners, despite the low minimum wages workers receive.  A practice of micro-credit takes placeon certain farms, where workers pay rent for small properties owned by the farmers, but the cost of rent puts the worker in a cycle of debt to the farm owner. Another practice of micro-credit occurs where workers take out loans from the farm owners, locking workers in a cycle of debt. Farms are located many kilometres away from the nearest urban centre or shop, meaning they have little or no option other than to purchase basic goods from the farmer.

 The Dop system (referred to as the Tot system in English and is payment in alcohol) was outlawed in the 1960s, there are still farmers who practice this system of exploitation, endorsing a cycle of alcohol dependency, especially with regards to children affected by Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (an illness, developed in a foetus, of mental and physical defects caused by mother’s who consume high amounts of alcohol during pregnancy). Agricultural work is seasonal, and farmworkers are employed during harvest periods.In 2012, out of the 121 000 farm workers employed in the Western Cape farms,slightly more than half of farm workers, mostly women, are seasonal and are employed via labour brokers.  

According to Human Rights Watch report, as of 2012 only 3% of farm workers in the Western Cape belonged to a trade union. The low representation of farm workers in unions weakened their bargaining power and those who are not part of unions are not able to participate in a protected strike, meaning workers who took part in strike place their already precarious jobs on farms at risk. According to The South African Labour Guide, a protected strike is, “refers to a lawful strike which is in compliance with the requirements of the Labour Relations Act of 1995.”

A sectoral determination is legislation that controls terms and conditions of employment in a particular sector, whereby a sectoral determination sets sector’s minimum wages. A sectoral determination also regulates payment, pensions and medical schemes and it can also prohibit or regulate piecework and set minimum standards of housing conditions on an employer’s premises. Sectoral determination is implemented in sectors where there is no collective bargaining: domestic workers, security guards and farmworkers. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (No.75 of 1997) aimed to regulate and give effect to the practice of fair labour. In December 2002, the then Minister of Labour, Membathisi Mdlalana, announced the first sectoral determination specifically for farm workers. The new sectoral determination was formulated in the Government Gazette R 24114 as Sectoral Determination No.8: Farm Worker Sector.

 In 2006, farm workers raised concerns about sectoral determination No.8, and it was later replaced by Sectoral Determination No.13. Every three years the terms and conditions in a sectoral determination are reviewed and amended for the following three years. A sectoral determination for farm workers came into effect in March 2012 and the sectoral determination was supposed to be reviewed in 2015. When a farm worker’s strike spread across farms in the Western Cape in November 2012, the Department of Labour was under pressure as the Department feared that the strike could spread nationally. Hence the March 2012 sectoral determination for farm workers was cancelled and went under reviewas the Department of Labour faced public scrutiny due to the minimum wage for farm workers and the Department also faced a lot of pressure from various actors.  

The First Phase of the Farm workers Strike 2012

In late 2012, a series of farm worker’s strikes occurred in concentrated farming areas across the Western Cape. The farm workers uprising occurred on 27 August 2012 in Keurboschkloof Farm near De Doorns in the Cape Winelands District Municipality. The strike in Keurboschkloof Farm was organised predominantly by women and was a reaction to new farm owners who wanted workers to sign contracts, stipulating lower wages. The strikes inspired other farm workers and the strikes spread quickly around the Western Cape. The strikes escalated rapidly by late October 2012, where a number of clashes between police and farmworkers took place.

De Doorns was the centre of the strike activity. Soon after the protests in De Doorns, strikes occurred in Stofland (an informal settlement situated outside De Doorns), the Royal Mushroom Farm in De Doorns and Normandy Farm in Groot Drakenstein. The initial strike on the Royal Mushroom Farm and on Normandy Farm had a total of 800 strikers. Strikes escalated in November 2012 where a total of sixteen towns took part and thousands of workers took to the streets. The escalated growth of participation instilled fear in the government that the strike would spread nationally. The strikes also spread to other areas in the Western Cape, including Clanwilliam, Citrusdal, Robertson, Wolseley, Worcester, Grabouw, Villiersdorp, Ashton, Somerset West and Swellendam.

Farm workers demanded a wage increase from R69 to R150 and payment on rainy days that prevents workers from pursuing their tasks, an 8 hour working day, women demanded equal pay to men and paid maternity leave where the Department of Labour allows for four consecutive months of maternity leave, workers wanted paid annual leave where the Department of Labour allows for a full paid six weeks of leave over a three year period, an end to labour brokers so that workers can be directly employed by  farm owners, an end to piece work (piece work refers to seasonal workers who only have access to work when produce on the farms can be harvested), rent free housing and improved living conditions, a moratorium on evictions,  an end to police brutality in the rural areas, access to clean and free water, free or subsidised electricity, and free and protective clothing to work in. Workers also wanted farm owners to stop intimidation, as there were reports of farmers who threatened to decrease wages or retrench workers if workers went on strike.  Farm workers gave the government 4 December 2012 as the deadline in order for a settlement to be reached.

The farm workers strike was inspired by the Marikana Massacre that occurred on 16 August 2012, where the South African Police Service (SAPS) opened fire on striking mineworkers, killing 34 workers. The farm workers uprising turned violent as workers burnt vineyards, destroyed farmer’s cars and property and set alight tyres. On 9 January 2013, thousands of farm workers in De Doorns marched to the N1 (a national road that passes through many farming towns) blocking the road. Throughout the period of strikes, protesters were frequently confronted with police brutality, as the police utilised rubber bullets to target and disperse striking crowds. In mid-January 2013, clinics in Ceres and De Doorns were closed by the Department of Health. The Western Cape Health Minister, Theuns Botha, justified closing the clinics and said, We cannot afford to put our health workers who work at these clinics at risk, and so are forced to close the clinics.”

Between 27 August and 4 December 2012, two strikers were killed and property valued in millions was destroyed. The first person killed in the farm workers uprising was Michael Daniels, a 28 year old tractor driver. On 14 November 2012, during violent protests in Voortrekker Street, Wolseley, police opened fire on protesters killing Daniels. Farmworkers retaliated by throwing stones and in return, police fired rubber bullets. Five people were injured including Tienie Crous, an 82 year old man who was shot with rubber bullets in the head and arms. On 17 November 2012, Bongile Ndleni was found dead from gunshots in his home on a farm in the Prince Alfred Hamlet area in De Doorns. Police denied being involved in the killing of Ndleni, but police investigations reported camera footage showing a vehicle, possibly with a security guard, who entered the home before Ndleni’s death. In the second phase of strikes, one person was killed by the police. During protests in De Doorns on 14 January 2013, Letsekang Thokoene was shot dead by the police with rubber bullets, at his work, in a spaza shop in De Doorns. Thokoene was reported to have no involvement in the protests.  

Although the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) claimed that their intervention was at the farm worker’s request, farm workers in the Western Cape mainly belonged to unions other than COSATU, such as the women’s led trade union named Sikhulu Sonke (meaning “We grow together”), and the independent Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU). The Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa (BAWUSA) was reported to have come out at the forefront of the strike in De Doorns in January 2013. According to Nosey Pieterse, the secretary general of BAWUSA, during the strikes its’ membership increased. However, workers mainly acted on their own accord.

On 10 November 2012, a meeting was arranged by the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, to encourage parties to resolve the strike through negotiations. However, the meeting did not take place as several of the parties felt that they did not have the mandate to negotiate wage disputes and that negotiations should be conducted on a farm at the farm level. On 12 November 2012, the Minister tried to arrange another meeting with  parties to negotiate with trade unions, but once again parties were unwilling if negotiations were not at the farm level. There were numerous incidents where protestors mentioned that they did not follow COSATU and rejected negotiated settlements announced by COSATU. 

At the COSATU headquarters in Cape Town, on 14 November 2012, COSATU explained the review process of the farm workers sectoral determination to farm workers from De Doorns and held a press conference with farm-worker organisations and Tina Joemat-Petersen. The press conference announced that work on the farms would resume on 15 November 2012. According to Tony Ehrenreich, the regional secretary of COSATU in the Western Cape, the involvement of COSATU to lead the strike was at the request of the strikers. COSATU claimed that they wanted to avoid a situation similar to the Marikana Massacre. The Democratic Alliance (DA) laid charges against Tony Ehrenreich for the incitement of violence after National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) distributed a poster around the Western Cape. The poster was a call to picket, and on the poster was a picture of Ehrenreich, quoting him, “FEEL IT! Western Cape Marikana is here!” The DA alleged that COSATU conspired with the African National Congress (ANC) in order to create chaos, thereby making the Western Cape ungovernable. Marius Fransman, chairperson the ANC in the Western Cape, accused the DA of fabricating the negotiations and that if the pamphlet was organised by members of the ANC then a negotiation is needed.  

On 15 November 2012, the Department of Labour published two government gazettes announcing their intention to cancel the sectoral determination of farm workers that came into effect in March 2012 to February 2015. The Department announced a process to review minimum wages in the agricultural sector. On 16 November 2012, the Department of Labour organised a meeting with AgriSA (a federation of agricultural organisations that represents farmer interests) and other parties to establish a process of negotiations. The parties agreed to such a process on condition that a delegation of ten members was included from the farming sector, to conduct negotiations at farm level. Government appealed to parties in order to make a joint submission to the Employment Conditions Commission (ECC) before the recommendation was sent to the Minister of Labour, Mildred Oliphant.

With the support of CSAAWU and Mawubuye Land Rights Forum, the Democratic Left Front (DLF) released a statement on 15 November 2012, stating that protestors were not in support of COSATU’s suspension of the strike; however they supported a one day general strike that would occur in early December of 2012.

The Commission of Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) offered to intervene in order to reach a short-term binding solution until the sectoral determination review process was complete. Under the auspices of the CCMA, negotiations were held on the 22 November 2012. Parties involved in these negotiations included AgriSA, African Farmers Association of Africa (Afasa), Agri-Sector Unity Form, Landbou Werkgewesorgorgnisasie (LWO), Farm Workers/Dwellers Forum, Agricultural Workers Empowerment Union Council (AWETUC), Food Sovereignty Campaign, Women on Farms Project (WFP), Mawubuye Land Rights Forum, Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Cape Agriculture Employers Organization  and Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa (TAU-SA). During the negotiations, Mildred Oliphant announced the following that was agreed upon by the parties involved:

-          Overarching framework for conducting negotiations

−      That the negotiations will be conducted within the ambit of the Labour Relations Act, of 1995 and Basic Conditions of Employment Act 75, of 1997.

−      Parties agreed that there is a sense of urgency in finding a solution to the dispute, which also necessitated a consideration of options outside of the legislative framework

−      That the challenges confronting the sector can be categorised into short term and medium to long term.

After labour had made a list of demands, the Minister of Labour also announced the following agreements made by the parties involved:

 

-          That issues relating to wages; dismissal; disciplinary action; evictions and intimidation on the farms should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

−      That a two-aside task team be appointed and establish a mediation task team which will evaluate and assess all complaints brought by workers and farmers

−      That the mediation task team would attempt to resolve the issues through a process of facilitation and negotiations

−      That in the event the dispute remains unresolved; it will be referred to the relevant and appropriate forum or institution that has the legal mandate to address the complaint.

−      That the task team would engage the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), as proposed by AgriSA and supported by all parties, to provide an agricultural economic analysis that will inform the parties in their negotiations.

 

The Second Phase of the Farm workers Strikes 2012-2013

On 4 December 2012, strikes continued as both farm workers that returned to work and those who remained striking claimed that there were still no solid negotiations that lead to any consensus. However, the deadline was not met, meaning the strike would resume on 4 December 2012. In the afternoon of 4 December 2012, Ehrenreich announced the suspension of the strike.  Some criticised Ehrenreich for calling off the strike without a mandate from workers.

Strikes resumed on 9 January 2013, following failed pay negotiations. On 4 January 2013, Ehrenreich made a statement saying, “We’re at the point where the mandate from workers is to resume the strike on 9 January 2013." Ehrenreich also claimed that individual farmers and AgriSA did not offer viable solutions to farm workers.  

Not all farmworkers ended the strike simultaneously. By early January 2013, most non-union strikers in Robertson returned to work. COSATU claimed that farm workers had, in Clanwilliam, reached a settlement of R105. On 16 January 2013, COSATU announced the end of strikes in the Western Cape, except in De Doorns where workers were adamant on receiving a daily wage of R150, instead of the increased offer of R105. From August 2012 to January 2013, 9000 farm workers were estimated to have gone on strike. The strikes caused tension and violent conflict in farm worker communities where numerous strikers were injured or arrested during confrontations with police. 

Farm owner’s reactions to the strike differed. There were farmers who directly negotiated with their workers and reached settlements, and there were those farmers who were angered by the effects the strikes had on their business. After the strike, there were reports of retributive action taken by farmers against workers who took part in the strike through retrenching workers and evicting them and their families. Some farmers increased rent by 100%, threatened to evict those who were not able to pay and demanded rent from worker’s family members who did not work on the farm. Many permanent workers were fired, and evicted and replaced with seasonal workers employed through labour brokers. Over 60 CSAAWU farmworkers, including many union leaders and women, were fired. Some retrenched workers claimed to have been ‘blacklisted’ by farmers making it impossible for them to find new work. Farmers justified their reactions based on the fact that workers illegally protested, as many strikers did not belong to a union. 

Due to the strikes, production was affected. For example, in De Doorns, only 600 000 cartons of fruit were packed, compared to the usual 1 000 000. By the end of January, 2013, the overall situation seemed to have calmed down and strikes officially came to an end. On 4 February 2013, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant announced the minimum wage increase from R69 to R105, which would take effect in March 2013. This sectoral development would cover a three year period and in the second and third year, the wages would increase in line with inflation.


References:
• Business Report, (2013). ‘Farmworkers’ strike to continue’, from Business Report, 8 January [online], Available at: www.iol.co.za/business[Accessed on 2 February 2015].
• Christians, T., & Legassick, M. (2012). ‘Farmworkers strike must continue-DLF’, 25 November [online], Available at: www.politicsweb.co.za[Accessed on 10 February 2015].
• Christie, S. (2012), ‘Leaderless farm strike is ‘organic’’,from Mail & Guardian, 16 November [online], Available at: www.mg.co.za[Accessed on 2 February 2015].
• City Press. (2013, ‘De Doorns man killed in shooting not part of strike’, from City Press, 16 January [online], Available at: www.citypress.co.za[Accessed on 4 February 2015].
• >Ehrenreich, T. (2012), ‘Farm worker strike suspended for 2 weeks ”“ COSATU WCape’,14 November [online], Available: www.politicsweb.co.za[Accessed on 2 February 2015].
• Hattingh, S. (2013). ‘Reaping What You Sow: Reflections on the Western Cape Farmworkers Strike’, from Zabalaza, 9 February [online], Available at: www.zabalaza.net[Accessed: 2 February 2015].
• Human Rights Watch, (2011), ‘South Africa: Farmworker’s Dismal, Dangerous Lives’, from Human Rights Watch’[online], Available at: www.hrw.org [Accessed on 5 February 2015].
• Knoetzee, D. (2012). ‘Boland farm workers down tools’, from IOL News, 18 September [online], Available at: www.iol.co.za[Accessed on 8 February 2015].

Last updated : 11-Aug-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 27-Feb-2015

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