The seven-day total shutdown of Addo and Kirkwood in the Eastern Cape’s Sundays River Valley by farm workers and residents has been put on hold for a fortnight. A farm worker, Benito Moses from Malawi, 35, was killed during the protests. He was allegedly shot at close range by private security guards. During the shutdown, damage on farms said to amount to millions of rands has allegedly been caused by protesters.
Commercial farmers in the area, the Sundays River local municipality’s ANC mayor, Simphiwe Rune, and the provincial leadership of the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) agreed in a meeting on 26 April to suspend the shutdown for 14 days.
Sanco’s Eastern Cape spokesperson, Simthembile Vayeke, said the organisation wanted to give farmers time to respond to workers’ demands. These include a R30 an hour minimum wage, equal pay for local and migrant labourers, a provident fund for farm workers and for 70% of the jobs on farms to be allocated to locals.
But this decision was not supported by all the strikers, some of whom circulated voice notes rejecting the 14-day suspension. “Our mandate didn’t say that,” said one worker, who did not want to be named. “We said that when they agree to all our terms and conditions, we go back to work. Who gives those guys the right to decide for the workers? The mayor has nothing to do with this. He must rather focus on getting the infrastructure right in the location [township].”
Another worker, who also preferred to remain anonymous, said farmers had pressured Rune and Sanco into capitulating because “their fruit is waiting for us” with harvest season under way.
Vayeke said the meeting had discussed problematic labour practices. “The farm workers accused the farmers of bashing and banishing unions and deterring them from organising. The farmers use legal representatives in labour disputes but bar workers from utilising legal representatives or unions,” said Vayeke.
He said workers had also objected to farmers hiding migrant workers in “far-flung areas” so that Department of Labour inspectors could not interview them about allegations that they are paid far less than the statutory minimum wage of R23.19 per hour.
He added that farm workers objected to the farmers insisting that they would accept medical certificates from only a certain doctor in the area. They also said they were being made to start work after 10am, meaning they did not earn a full day’s pay.
The Sundays River Valley Citrus Producers’ Forum responded to the workers’ demands on 28 April, saying it would not agree to the demand of a R30 an hour minimum wage.
It added that it would investigate “allegations of unlawful or unfair conduct” by farmers and would “impress upon” them that unfair labour practices and dismissals must be dealt with through the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.
The farmers’ body added that it had contributed over R27 million to community projects and maintenance of infrastructure since 2018 and trained 30 community members to become independent service providers for picking, pruning and planting teams.
An uncertain future
It is not certain where the shutdown goes from here. While local Sanco leader Mbuyiseli Bayini said on 26 April that a steering committee of farmers and farm workers would look into the workers’ demands over a 14-day period, the farmers’ rejection of their main demands changes things.
It seems that Sanco’s provincial leadership has washed its hands off the strike, with Vayeke saying that Sanco believed “this is a matter between farm workers, farmers and the labour unions and they should be given space to resolve this matter within the confines of the Labour Relations Act”.
But the act allows only registered trade unions, not civic organisations, to negotiate wages and working conditions. Workers at the strike complained that when they had tried to join unions, they were demoted or dismissed, or not hired for the next season.
Harvest season in the valley is from April to October every year, and fewer than 30% of farm workers succeed in finding work for the remaining six months that fall out of season. Compounding this problem is that many municipal services are in a state of collapse. Residents experience water cut-offs for up to seven days at a time during the hot summer months.
Previous strikes in 2015 and 2018 resulted in pay increases for farm workers. Confidential citrus industry meeting notes from 2015 pointed out that the strikes were very costly to commercial farmers and the municipality. During the 2015 strike the police fired 10 000 rubber bullets before order was restored and all municipal offices and the ANC’s office were burnt down, the notes said.