The grapes of wrath

2013-01-20 10:00

Farmers operating at a loss will struggle to pay higher wages, writes Eddie Botha.

The future of South Africa’s quality table grape export industry is on the line, along with thousands of jobs as the Western Cape’s farm worker strike continues.

“We can go under, for sure,” warned Agri Wes-Cape spokesperson Porchia Adams, adding that a withdrawal of the country’s grapes from the international ordering list will result in “no jobs and no income”.

The area – now facing widespread bankruptcies after a difficult few seasons, characterised by climbing electricity and fuel costs, and squeezed margins due to the global recession – barely resembles the glowing description the SA Table Grape Industry partnership punts on its website.

There, “people of all cultures and religious persuasion work together to fulfil a common goal – growing the finest grapes in the world”.

Michael Laubscher, chairman of the Hex Valley Table Grape Association, says the De Doorns farmers showed a R5 loss on a 4.5kg carton of export table grapes last season.

Farmers in the Paarl area suffered even more – with their cartons selling for R15 less per box.

According to research organisation Frudata, which measures income and expenses of the country’s fruit produce, it cost a De Doorns table grape farmer on average R63.33 to deliver to port a carton of grapes, for which they received R58.23.

For an average 30-hectare farm, this translated to a R600?000 loss.

Approximately 30% of the farmers’ costs go to wages, and the figures exclude costs such as electricity, water, pesticides and insurance.

Laubscher says farmers in De Doorns warn they may be forced to cut jobs if workers do not return to work soon.

The harvesting season for table grapes has begun and some are feeling the strike’s effects.

But angry workers, led by Nosey Pieterse’s Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry (Bawsi), want nothing less than R150 a day – up from the current R69 minimum wage – which, if granted, would add an additional R300?000 a month to some farmers’ wage bills.

“In terms of numbers, this valley produces about 18?million cartons and, if you are going on an average price of R60 a carton, that is quite a big amount of money that flows into this valley. If we can’t produce, there will be huge job losses,” says Laubscher.

Since the strike began in November, many leaders, including Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant and provincial Premier Helen Zille, have unsuccessfully called for an end to the violence.

This week, spaza shop employee Letsekang Thokoene (23) died after he was shot by police with rubber bullets during a protest.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate is investigating.

Western Cape Cosatu leader Tony Ehrenreich and the department of labour announced this week that farm workers in Clanwilliam reached an agreement for R105 a day, which could signal the strike’s end if farmer body Agri SA accepts it.

But Adams rejected the claim, saying the offer was made by a single farmer desperate for a large number of temporary workers during the peak harvest time.

“This offer was neither supported nor mandated as a collective agreement by other farm leaders and representative organisations of commercial farmers from Clanwilliam,” she said.

Meanwhile, Efficient Group chief economist Dawie Roodt said not all farmers could afford to pay R150 a day, for reasons that included high input costs.

Laubscher says he has to replace 10% of his vines each year to keep up with market trends, at a cost of R250?000.

The newly replaced vines take four years to come into production and seven years to break even.

This excludes risks ranging from the weather to the disapproval of food critics with the varieties planted.

In its latest report released last month, research body Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy revealed that the country’s agricultural sector, long dependent on cheap and unskilled labour, would not survive in its current form.

Its future will instead “be characterised by fewer, more skilled and better-paid workers”.

The researchers say there is some scope to increase the minimum wage.

“From the analysis, however, it is evident that if average wages increase by more than R20 per day to around R104 per day, many of the typical farms will be unable to cover their operating expenses,” said the report.

One farmer to whom City Press spoke owed his bank R3?million 10 years ago. Today, he owes R18?million.

But even if farm workers get the R150 a day they want, it is still not enough to live on.

The researchers say that, given current food prices, no “typical rural Western Cape wage-earning households” could afford proper food.

The farmers are also at breaking point.

“As ons R150 per dag moet betaal, dan is ons moer in (If we have to pay we R150 per day, we are stuffed),” said Laubscher.

?The Farmer

Michael Laubscher is used to the rough and tumble of a rugby scrum. His framed rugby jerseys, which line the wall of his office on his Immanuel Farm, can attest to that.

The man who led Stellenbosch University’s side to the 2007 national club championship also played hooker for the Golden Lions and the Leopards Currie Cup sides.

But Laubscher is now embroiled in another battle, one he didn’t expect when he became chairperson of the Hex Valley Table Grape Association (HTA). It has landed him in the middle of a dispute between farmers and trade unions over an improved minimum wage for farm workers.

He took over the farm 10 years ago when his father, Kosie, a former Boland rugby player, was diagnosed with kidney disease.

The Laubscher farming business knows hardship.

Its vineyards in De Doorns were infected with bacterial blight. After they replaced them, the new vineyards became infected as well.

By the 2003-04 season, exchange rates were killing the export business and his father’s illness became even worse.

His aunt donated one of her kidneys to him. Kosie Laubscher says he owes much of his recovery to the prayers of his workers, a “group of farm women (who) were praying for me in the mountain”.

Michael Laubscher says that his organisation is not interested in politics, despite the fact that it affects them.

“We strive to serve the industry. For that reason we have launched the farm worker of the year award, during which we rate the various types of work done by farm workers and reward them.”

He doesn’t deny that a minimum wage of R69 per day is not enough.

“But I also cannot farm at a loss,” he adds. He pays his seasonal workers R85 a day.

Laubscher insists that the problem also lies with the large number of people who simply do not want to work.

“I have 200 workers on my employment list but there are never more than 150 on the farm at a given time.”

He also dismisses claims that seasonal workers are exploited and paid worst of all.

“We often have disputes between the farmers because one would pay his seasonal workers more than what the other farmer does. When that happens the workers will simply get onto another farmer’s truck. If you want the best seasonal workers, you cannot afford not to pay them well.”

He says that as soon as the strikes began last November he advised the HTA members to increase their wages “and where possible to look at the complete packages they offer”. He says 95% of members did that.

“I am totally against collective bargaining. I want to pay my workers based on their performance and, of course, what my business can afford,” he said.

?The Farm workers

To see hundreds of women workers picking table grapes in De Doorns’ sun-drenched vineyards is a common sight.

Many are their families’ sole breadwinners and have chosen not to strike.

It’s not an easy decision, says one woman too frightened to be identified because of widespread intimidation.

The fact that she lives on one of the Hex River Valley farms and does not have to travel to Stofland, the township outside De Doorns from where the strike action is being waged, could not convince her to face the camera or reveal her name.

Part of the N1 highway detours through the dusty De Doorns town because large rocks placed near Stofland’s entry road block traffic on this Western Cape major route.

As City Press stopped to photograph a group of about 40 women picking grapes behind a farm security fence, a minibus taxi full of strikers screeched to a halt behind us.

A number of passengers leaned out of the open windows and one shouted: “Ons gaan julle f***en kry wanneer ons terugkom! (We are going to f***ing get you when we come back).”

The women fled, hiding their faces, running uphill towards the Hex River mountains.

Only one remained, displaying a bunch of grapes she’d picked.

Defiantly she said: “Ek wou nog altyd op die TV kom (I have always wanted to be on TV).”

But it’s not just the women who fear reprisals should they be caught working.

The main target of the striking community’s wrath, or so it seems, is the number of Zimbabweans who move to the valley during picking season to make a living.

Grape farmer Michael Laubscher, who chairs the 100-member strong Hex Valley Table Grape Association, is convinced that the latest spate of protests are related to the xenophobic violence that divided the local workforce some three years ago.

“Producers prefer to employ Zimbabweans as seasonal workers, which led to accusations by the local ANC that we are waging a campaign against the Sothos because we pay the Zimbabweans less,” he says.

There are now about 4?000 seasonal Zimbabwean workers in the area.

Three spoke to City Press.

Gideon*, who came from Masvingo two years ago, worked at a factory in Worcester.

But during the grape-picking season he joined the local farming workforce.

He lives in Stofland, and leaves each day in the early hours to avoid being seen.

He returns late at night.

He is happy with the R90 a day he earns – more than the R69 a day minimum wage – saying “it’s okay for now”.

He would prefer to live on the farm on which he works like his countryman John* (18) who shares a two-bedroom labourer’s cottage with his brother and his wife. John’s mother died years ago but he sends money home to his stepmother.

“I also need money to go back to Zimbabwe and start a future there,” says John, who also earns R90 a day.

His home is empty, other than three mattresses, blankets, some pots and pans, a hot plate and an electric light.

There are no chairs or tables and John and the others wash in water they fetch from outside. They share an outside toilet with other workers.

Felix, from Harare, has lived in South Africa for five years and in that time has seen his wife and two children three times.

He used to live in Stofland, earning R60 per day, but fled during the xenophobic violence.

He was then offered accommodation by the farmer he works for. He earns R80 per day.

“I want nothing to do with the strikes. The situation in Stofland is not good,” he says.

The Unionist

Cosatu’s Western Cape leader, Tony Ehrenreich, says it is difficult to resolve strikes in the agriculture sector.

There are a few realities which have to be accepted, he says, one of which is very low union membership on farms.

“They (the farmers) don’t want to allow us on the farms; they are hostile. They also don’t know anything about industrial action and appoint consultants who make money out of them,” he says.

“The consultants don’t want a settlement – then they lose money.”

Ehrenreich says there has to be a solution to the strikes that have gripped the province since November, “but we clearly can’t continue with these slave wages”.

“What the final outcome will be – that’s anyone’s guess. But the farmers will have to change their attitude,” he added.

Ehrenreich says he has spoken to many farmers during the ongoing labour unrest.

“Maar die vark in die verhaal is Agri SA (but the villain in the story is trade association Agri SA).”

He also accuses Laubscher and the other De Doorns farmers of being uncooperative, and of “falling for bad advice they receive from consultants.”

He also disagrees with claims from workers that there is disunity among them.

“All workers are united in this action,” he says.

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