Stuck between poverty and a machine

2014-04-16 10:00

Farm-employer organisation AgriSA last week met with trade union representatives in an effort to strike a deal to allow unionisation on farms – especially in the winelands of the Western Cape.

“Most farmers still will not allow union representatives on to their properties,” says Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) general secretary Dennis George.

Fedusa and representatives of its affiliated general workers’ union, the United Association of SA, are hoping that a “strategic partnership” can be established with AgriSA that will enable union access to farms. “There are so many problems and the only way we can deal with them is through dialogue,” says George.

This initiative comes as the grape harvest season in the Western Cape draws to an end. With it, thousands of part-time jobs will again disappear for eight months. Along with those jobs will go the only income for families whose shacks sprawl across the unproductive and often rocky areas alongside the fields of trellised vines.

These are the men and women who were at the forefront of the protests in January and February last year when farm workers downed tools to demand R150 a day for their labour. In the absence of any serious union presence on the farms, minimum daily pay is set for farm workers by the minister of labour “in consultation with labour”.

The rate, until February last year, was R69 a day, an amount that had not been questioned or debated until farm workers launched a major protest that began in November 2012. There was a brief hiatus over the holiday season before the protests, with their epicentre in De Doorns in the Hex River Valley, erupted in the area.

Police were called in, blood flowed, crops were burnt and three farm workers died. The end result was a new determination of R105 a day.

Since then, there have been numerous complaints about the wage not being fully paid. These have tended to come from permanent workers living on farms who now find themselves charged rates that they say are often exorbitant for formerly free services such as electricity and water.

There is also the age-old device of the “company store”, where farmers sell essential goods at inflated prices, often on credit, through farm stores. A number of farmers have also applied to waive the minimum payment on the grounds that they cannot afford it.

But the simple fact is, work is now ending for thousands of able-bodied men and women who toil as causal workers in the winelands. Many complain that after the hardship and pain of the strikes and protests, little, if anything, has changed and that some individuals have profited at the workers’ expense.

Thanks to mechanised harvesting, there were already fewer jobs this year than there might have been in the recent past, given the size of the harvest for both table and wine grapes.

“Overall, the effect of the strike has been negative,” admits Trevor Christians, general secretary of the Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural & Allied Workers’ Union, a small but relatively active union centred on the Robertson region.

He notes that widespread cynicism about trade unions has also emerged among many farm workers. This has resulted in apathy with a strong undercurrent of anger.

It was this anger that exploded in November 2012. Now some of that anger seems to be directed at Building and Allied Workers’ Union of SA, the union that played a prominent role in the strikes. It is headed by controversial pig farming businessman and “self-supporting parish pastor” Nosey Pieterse.

According to the registrar of trade unions, Pieterse is listed as the general secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers’ Union of SA.

This union is now being investigated by the labour department. Unsurprisingly, since Bawsi is the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry, a close corporation that has been involved in multimillion-rand deals in the wine, spirit and farming sectors. Pieterse was also the chair of Lindiwe Wines, which went bust in 2008 with debt of R5?million.

Apart from confirming that an investigation is under way, there was no comment from the registrar of trade unions. But a senior department official noted: “It seems ridiculous to have a business enterprise doubling as a trade union.”

It also seems to be a recipe for further bitterness in the winelands, with allegations of bribery and corruption rampant. “All we need is decent union organisation,” says Christians.

With regard to the Fedusa initiative, nobody seems to be holding their breath.

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