The South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) and the Sundays River Valley Farm Workers’ Forum (SRVFWF) have accused commercial farmers in the Eastern Cape valley of instigating xenophobia by ignoring the statutory minimum wage of R23.19 an hour and bringing in workers from other countries to pick citrus fruit at a wage as low as R10 an hour.
The towns of Kirkwood and Addo in the Sundays River Valley citrus farming area have been shut down for seven days by farm workers and community members. They are demanding a minimum wage of R30 an hour at all businesses in the town, promotions and a provident fund for farm workers, and a 70%-30% allocation of jobs between local and migrant workers.
The total shutdown was organised by Sanco, which was interdicted on 25 April from continuing to lead the strike. The SRVFWF has formally distanced itself from the shutdown, saying it would negotiate wage increases for farm workers and a strike should be a last resort. However, the shutdown is receiving strong support and all businesses and schools remain closed. About 3 000 workers and community members turned out to blockade the area on Monday 25 April.
The shutdown has faced accusations of xenophobia because the strikers set fire to fruit and vegetable grower Habata’s accommodation for migrant workers, but Sanco and SRVFWF leaders denied the allegations. The forum’s chairperson, Vuyisile Sikani, said some citrus farms are responsible for instigating xenophobia by employing far more workers – up to 88% of their workforce – from neighbouring countries than South Africans.
“How can the local workers only get 12% of the jobs? The biggest farms in our valley do this and are creating xenophobia. They know exactly that the workers will fight each other because of the bread they are putting in between them,” Sikani said.
A group of South African and Zimbabwean workers disputed the xenophobia claims. “We are one here. As you can see, we are fighting together. The problem is that farmers want to make a gap between us and bring in workers from other countries and pay them R10 per hour. That makes our struggle hard,” said one worker.
Workers and residents from Moses Mabhida in Kirkwood barricaded the roads to the township with broken citrus tree branches from neighbouring farms on Monday. Private security guards lined the hill opposite, firing rubber and live bullets at the protesters.
Most of the farm workers at the protest did not want to be named, saying the farmers in the area have a list of all the workers who protest or join unions and will not hire them again.
A solitary group of 14 workers said a security guard had shot one of their colleagues in the head with a live bullet at close range. They huddled in shock around a large pool of blood on the ground after he was taken to hospital. The guard, who refused to give his name, denied the allegation and said the worker had been hit by a stone thrown by the strikers. Sikani confirmed that one of the workers, an SRVFWF member known only as Fergus, died on Monday night from his injuries. Benito Moses, 35, another farmworker, died in hospital.
A 23-year-old farm worker from Mozambique was bleeding from the side and the arm from rubber bullet wounds, while other workers collected rubber and live bullet casings as proof of such ammunition being used. A group of workers from South Africa and several other countries said a second worker, a 33-year-old from Malawi, had been transferred to Livingstone Hospital in Gqeberha after being shot in the head.
“We are so angry now. They are shooting us. We are all bleeding,” said a worker.
Sikani singled out Habata for causing the shutdown. Habata farms 1 700 hectares of citrus trees, vegetables and melons in the Eastern and Western Cape, and owns the 300-hectare Le Grand Chasseur Wine Estate in the Winelands. It is accredited by 10 local and European ethical, sustainable and good agricultural trade associations.
Sikani alleged that Habata had demoted permanent workers in March because they joined the Agricultural Food and Allied Democratic Workers Union. Casual workers were then promoted in their place.
The SRVFWF had met with the Agricultural and Allied Industries Association on 24 March hoping to reverse the demotions. They were told Habata would respond within four days, Sikani said. But a day later, the association sent Sikani an email noting the SRVFWF’s warning that “labour unrest” was likely. It also acknowledged the forum’s “positive attitude to address issues at the workplace” but refused to negotiate further with the forum.
“All this chaos was started by Habata. How could they embarrass permanent supervisors and tractor drivers by giving them bags and scissors and telling them to pick lemons and oranges and then promote the casual pickers? This is not apartheid South Africa where workers can be treated like this. It is intolerable, but we as the SRVFWF still remain disciplined,” Sikani said.
Habata did not respond to voice mails, texts or emails.
Simon Radebe, who had just been hit in the ear by a rubber bullet, said life is very tough for farm workers. “I’ve worked for 15 years on the same farm, but there are no promotions. The farmer keeps making empty promises. I earn only R1 200 per fortnight and R300 of that is deducted by the farmer for transport,” Radebe said. He pointed out that the workers are transported on the back of a crowded truck.
Broken citrus trees and citrus peels littered the road, with farm workers eating the oranges they usually cannot consume. “We don’t usually get to eat these fruits. If you eat a single lemon in the packhouse, even if you are feeling sick, you will be dismissed,” said one worker.
On 25 April, the high court in Gqeberha granted an interdict preventing several Sanco leaders and protesting farm workers from coming within 500m of several farms in the Sundays River Valley, but the strikers said they will continue the shutdown until their demands are met.
Captain M Fivas from the South African Police Service confirmed that a worker had sustained “severe trauma to the head”, but could not confirm that he was shot by a security guard. He said he could not confirm what ammunition private security guards were using. The police were only monitoring the situation and would use rubber bullets and pepper balls, not live ammunition, he added.
The last shutdown in the Sundays River Valley was in 2018 when farm workers won a minimum wage of R20 an hour, higher than the statutory R18 an hour minimum at the time. During that shutdown, the then Eastern Cape member of the executive council for rural development and agrarian reform, Xolile Nqatha, also called on farmers to stop employing workers from other countries at lower wages.