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April 26, 2013

Strike Victory Backfires for S. African Farm Workers

by Emilie Iob

After weeks of strikes and violent confrontations with authorities earlier this year, farmworkers in South Africa's Cape Town region won a partial victory. In February, the government agreed to increase their minimum wage by 52 percent. But this victory may be a curse in disguise as many farmers subsequently reduced the workers’ benefits and laid them off, saying they could not afford to pay the higher wage. 

Pointing at a leaking roof and broken windows, Patrick Blu is eager to show the poor condition of his house.  He says he needs a higher living wage and he believes him and his fellow farm workers were justified in striking.

Victory backfires

But it has not turned out as planned.  The Labor Ministry did agree to increase the minimum wage from 69 rand to 105 rand - or about $4 more a day. It went in effect on March 1.

In theory, it was a victory. But in reality, Blu says, he is in worse financial straights than before the strike.

"You see, that's my electricity bill,” said Blu. “Before, it was free, now they deduct it from our salary.” He adds the same goes with the housing rent, which was also free before.

Like Blu's boss, many commercial farmers in the Cape Town region say they cannot afford the new higher wage. So instead, they cut some customary benefits like free housing and power on the farm for the workers.

For farmer Allen Harris, the higher wage is also a curse for the majority of unskilled farm hands who are being let go as a result.

"The situation was that farming was a sheltered position for people that were less educated and less skilled," said Harris. "Now we have to maximize skills. We have to maximize production. The poorer workers - physically and mentally the weaker workers - have now been shifted out."

Political backdrop

The agricultural trade association - AgriSA - argues the strike was politically-driven and the farming sector is suffering because of a political battle between the ruling ANC and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.

The Western Cape region is the only province in South Africa ruled by the DA.

Carl Opperman, AgriSA’s Western Cape chairman, says the strikes were pushed there by ANC officials to destabilize the DA.

Opperman argues the national wage increase is not a solution to empower farm workers or reduce poverty. Rather, he says, the government should focus on helping the farms to be more productive by protecting them against international competition.

"The South African farmer is the only framer basically in the world that has a 100 percent free market economy," he said. "We don't get any support from our government. We have got to fight our way in a world market and in our own country. We will need support, we don't need financial support, we need policy support. We need protectionism, we can justify it, not like at the moment where it is a free fall.”

The commercial farmers’ trade union, TAU SA, says that more than 1,500 workers were laid-off in the weeks following the wage increase, in Limpopo Province alone. Whereas in the Western Cape Province, many farmers say they will not be able to hire casual farmer workers again for the winter harvest season just weeks away.