Ladismith cheese workers demonstrate in solidarity with farmworkers

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Union representative Ronwan Rademeyer addresses demonstrating workers outside Ladismith Cheese.
Union representative Ronwan Rademeyer addresses demonstrating workers outside Ladismith Cheese.
Photo: Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp
  • About 50 workers at a Ladismith cheese factory face disciplinary action after demonstrating at the beginning of the month in support of farmworkers in the area.
  • The workers, members of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union, demanded that Ladismith Cheese stop using the services of a transport company run by a farmer who, they said, was racist to his farmworkers.
  • A labour expert appointed by Ladismith Cheese to probe the allegations found there was no proof, but the Ladismith Cheese workers have refused to accept these findings.

Workers at a Ladismith cheese factory demonstrated outside the factory last week in solidarity with farmworkers in the area. The workers were complaining about poor working conditions at the factory, GroundUp reports.

At the beginning of the month, about 50 workers at Ladismith Cheese, who belong to the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers' Union (CSAAWU), downed tools and some refused to load the trucks of a transport. They said the owner of the company, a farmer, was racist towards farmworkers.

The Ladismith Cheese workers now face disciplinary action from the company for leaving their workplaces. CSAAWU has denied that employees left their workplaces on these days.

It also said that its members at Ladismith Cheese should not be forced to work with the transport company.

GroundUp has tried to contact the company but without success.

The owner of the company also rents farmland in Ladismith and employs about 17 farmworkers. He is accused of choking, verbally abusing and threatening farmworkers in his employ. Workers said he drove around with a rifle and pointed it at workers in the past.

Labour practitioner and part-time CCMA commissioner, Piet van Staden, was employed by Ladismith Cheese to investigate the allegations against the farmer. In his report, Van Staden found that "the bulk of the allegations" made against the farmer were hearsay relayed by the union officials "from what they have been told".

He also said that many of the allegations remained unproven and that there was "no basis" that the farmer had committed any of the acts of abuse and racism of which he had been accused.

Ladismith Cheese management sent CSAAWU a memorandum of understanding with conditions for withdrawing disciplinary action against the workers for leaving their workplaces. One condition was that CSAAWU should "unconditionally accept" the outcome of Van Staden's investigation.

Ronwan Rademeyer, chairperson of CSAAWU in Kannaland and the Overberg, told GroundUp that the union would not accept the memorandum. "We can't agree with it because they want to bind our hands," said Rademeyer.

READ | Landisa: I am the son of a farm worker and I just published my own poetry

He said that CSAAWU wanted to stop Ladismith Cheese from doing business with the transport company because of the behaviour of the owner. He said farmworkers were important. "They work hard in this warm sun, through the wind and the rain. Why must they always get the short end of the stick?" asked Rademeyer.

When GroundUp visited the factory on 17 February, workers were demonstrating intermittently. They also complained to Rademeyer about working conditions and injuries on duty at the cheese factory.

Martiens Chubungo said that injuries were frequent at the factory. "Wrists, backs, muscle strains …" said Chubungo.

He said that management frequently questioned whether workers' injuries actually happened at work. Workers often had to call for the help of CSAAWU in order to get management to report the injury, he said.

"If you injure yourself, then you're told you're putting it on," said Francis Quantiney, another worker at the factory.

Quantiney said that women in the factory were expected to carry 20kg boxes and crates of cheese, although they said this was too much.

"Those boxes and crates are hopelessly too heavy for us women to pick up," she said. "We don't mind picking up the mozzarella, which is 10 to 15kg."

Elwira Stevens injured her back while carrying a 20kg crate of cheese. The company paid some of her medical costs and she went to a physiotherapist.

Stevens said she needed a medical letter to state that she couldn't do the heavy load jobs, which she didn't have.

"If you don't have it, then you must do the work. For a while I did normal work and injured my back more."

Ladismith Cheese told GroundUp that it was in negotiations with CSAAWU and did not want to comment at this stage.

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