The farmers' "vindictive" response to the latest two-week strike in the £850m-a-year fruit and wine sector is sacking workers by the truck-load.
South African farmworkers called off the latest round of a strike for a daily wage of 150 rands (£10.65), their union said but warned of a new flare-up in the Western Cape. Portia Adams, a spokeswoman for the employers' organisation Agri SA, said many farms had continued to operate using non-unionised labour from outside the farming areas.
"The government should be forcing the farmers to the table but it is not," said Nosey Pieterse, secretary general of the Black Workers' Agricultural Sector Union, (Bawusa). "Our only weapon left is for the foreign retailers to pledge that unless the conditions are addressed, they will no longer import South African products." The government has been silent on the issue, tacitly pointing to ongoing annual minimum wage talks. Pieterse, a lifelong activist for farmworkers' rights, said: "The farmers are intransigent, vengeful and arrogant. Yet they are the beneficiaries of post-apartheid South Africa. In the first 10 years of democracy, the wine industry grew tenfold, from 20m litres output before 1994 to 220m litres. The farmworkers' conditions went the other way. Tenure rights laws were not accepted by the farmers. More than 1 million farmworkers were evicted. They remain slaves on the land of their birth."
Most farmworkers are not unionised, many are illiterate and face the risk of eviction because they live on their employers' properties.Poorly enforced labour rights and tenancy laws as well as the pitifully low statutory minimum daily wage in the sector – 69.39 rands (£4.92) – perpetuate a culture of paternalism. To go on strike, workers have to stand up to employer. A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch found widespread exposure to pesticides, lack of access to drinking water or sanitation, and failure to pay sick leave. While the system of dop – payment in alcohol – has largely been abolished, the Western Cape still has the highest rates in the world of foetal alcohol syndrome.