Farm Workers Strike' in Western Cape: update by Departments of Labour & Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries

Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development

19 March 2013
Chairperson: Mr M Nchabeleng (ANC, Labour), and Mr M Johnson (ANC, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Labour (DoL) briefing on the farm worker strikes took the committees through efforts to negotiate settlements between farm workers and employers about the demand for a R150 a day minimum wage. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the DoL had initiated meetings and public hearings during November and December 2012, and early in 2013. Farm workers persisted with their wage demands, whereas employers insisted that they had no mandate to enter into discussions about wage increases. Eventually employers were willing to let the review process be based on findings by the Bureau of Food and Agricultural Production (BFAP). The BFAP findings suggested that wage increases could indeed make many farmers unable to meet operating costs. The BFAP findings were used as a platform by employers to apply for exemptions to wage increases. Agri SA informed the DoL that farmers in Limpopo and Mpumalanga intended to retrench 2000 workers.

The briefing by the DAFF emphasised the importance of the July 2010 historic National Vulnerable Workers Summit in the Western Cape, and the resolutions adopted there. The Summit made it possible for deliberate programmes by government. It laid the basis for a national institutional mechanism. There would be the co-ordination of a many role players like Basic Education, Rural Development and Land Reform, the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Department of Health. Nine provincial delivery forums were to be created, but only five provinces had managed to do so. An NGO forum would be established. The DoL was establishing a workers provident fund. Land rights would be considered. A bursary scheme had been established, with 50 beneficiaries.

The two briefings were discussed together. In discussion, it was emphasised that the National Vulnerable Workers Summit of 2010 made a cluster approach possible, with a move away from silos. Farm worker health issues received attention. The Chairpersons especially, urged members to look at the bigger picture, where institutional mechanisms were being put in place. A member pointed out that farmers were also vulnerable, as export markets were drying up, and they had to compete with subsidised farmers elsewhere. Markets could be lost. There was a question about seasonal workers. Violence, intimidation and loss of life and property received attention from several quarters, as did illegal evictions. The sufficiency of 50 bursaries for a group of 600 000 people, was questioned. A member foresaw that it could be difficult to deal with the many applications for exemptions from wage increases. It was stated that higher costs of employment could cause unemployment. There was a comment that negotiations had in fact gone against farm workers, as they had no access to labour union mechanisms. The DoL noted the challenge of employers not being ready to talk. The DAFF appealed to the DoL to support programmes for farm workers.

Meeting report

Department of Labour (DoL) on the Western Cape Farm Workers StrikesMr Nkosinathi Nhleko, Director-General, DoL, took the two Committees through efforts to negotiate settlements for the November 2012 farm workers strike that demanded R150 per day as the minimum wage. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) Minister called two meetings with employers in November 2012, but employers insisted that they did not have a mandate to enter into discussions about wage increases. The DoL also convened a meeting with Agri SA and other employer organisations. In November 2012, there was also a meeting under the auspices of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). By January 2013, employer parties still insisted that they were not mandated to enter into discussions. The DoL held public hearings in December 2012. Workers stuck to their wage demands, but employers argued that Bureau of Food and Agricultural Production (BFAP) results had to inform the review process.

The BFAP findings were that even R150 a day was not sufficient for food security. The farmers’ dilemma was that wage increases could make many farmers unable to cover their operating expenses. The BFAP was used as a platform for farmers to apply for exemptions from wage increases. The total amount of exemption applications received was 1432. The DoL was informed by Agri SA that farmers in Limpopo and Mpumalanga intended to retrench about 2000 workers.

Western Cape Farm Workers Strikes: Dept of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries (DAFF) 
Mr Joe Kgobokoe, Director-General, DAFF, said that a way forward had to be found to salvage the agricultural sector. He pointed out the importance of the July 2010 historic National Vulnerable Workers summit in the Western Cape, and the resolutions adopted there. There had never been deliberate government programmes before that. It laid the basis for a national institutional mechanism. There would be co-ordination of many role players. Basic Education would look at the functionality of farm schools. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) would attend to security of tenure. The Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) would handle higher education. The Department of Health would co-operate on health issues. DAFF would be involved in employee training. Nine provincial delivery forums were to be created, but as yet only five provinces had done so.

The efforts of NGOs were to be coordinated through the creation of an NGO forum. Labour inspectors would be professionalised. The DoL would establish a farm workers provident fund. The Security of Tenure Act was to be reviewed, and a land rights management facility created. There was a bursary scheme for children of farm workers through which 50 bursaries were available. The Department of Health and Aids South Africa would launch farm sector HIV/Aids testing through mobile units. He recommended that provincial delivery forums be developed.

Mr M Johnson, the Chairperson of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Portfolio Committee, said that some would say that the buildup to De Doorns started in 1910, some would say in 1652, and others would say it was as old as man himself. He was seeing a cluster scenario, to challenge remnants of the silo approach. July 2010 marked the establishment of an institutional mechanism. There was a task team on working conditions that could tackle the real issues. There were social determination and health issues related to vulnerable workers. He related an incident where a farm worker had sustained a severe head injury, but the doctor had booked him off for 3 days for flu. When the worker did not commence work after 3 days, he lost his job. Farmers and doctors had to work together. It was necessary to go beyond a narrow focus on De Doorns, to address broad issues of vulnerability.

A DAFF official responded that a process had been started, to be co-ordinated by the Department of Agriculture. Work conditions and compensation fund issues would be taken up. Health professionals would be taken on board to prevent head injuries being diagnosed as flu, with the worker being told he had absconded.

Mr Nhleko added that broad policy issues would be tackled, through interventions.

Mr A Williams (ANC, Labour) suggested that the farming sector be approached holistically. There were also vulnerable farmers. Export markets were drying up. Internationally, there were farmers who were being subsidised. Local farmers could go bankrupt because of an inability to compete with subsidised farmers. There had to be a movement away from departments working in silos, for instance through linkups with the Department of Trade and Industry, to see how farmers could be protected. Farmers had to be protected, or markets would be lost.

Mr Nhleko replied that it was valid to ask about the vulnerability of farming as an economic sector. It would be dealt with under broader policy issues. The discussion had to move beyond workplace practices. Agriculture would use two platforms to coordinate the institutional process: the Work Delivery Forum, and the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Production Policy. There had to be tactical coordination between the platforms. A structural mechanism was being developed, instead of a mere reaction to issues of the moment. Proactive steps would be taken in structural terms.

Ms A Steyn (DA, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) asked if vulnerable employers would be considered. She asked where Rural Development fitted in.

Ms Steyn asked about the Relief Fund (Slide 7)

Ms Steyn asked about compliance (Slide 10).

Ms Steyn asked about farm workers in the Western Cape, with reference to Slide 13. Was there was a focus on seasonal workers, as the focus was often on live-in workers?

Ms Steyn asked about bursaries for farm worker’s children (Slide 16). Was there a transport system available?

Mr D Kganare (COPE, Labour) asked about the reasons for the violence, loss of life and property, and why reasons had not been sought. He asked why there had been so much intimidation before “sanity returned”. The briefing was too silent on violence, and about security and safety on farms for all. He asked who had been responsible for the violence, and whether there would be consequences for them.

Ms Chanagri replied that it would not do to get stuck in the past. The law would take its course on violence.

Mr Nhleko added that there were a series of engagements about violence under way, with labour and agriculture involved, among others. The object was to get people to talk. Farmers were not yet ready to talk. It had to be noted that the instigators of the strikes had indicated that they wanted to talk. There were leadership issues.

Mr Kganare asked if farmers who threatened to retrench workers would be stopped.

Mr Kganare asked about percentages related to the decline of illegal evictions since 1994.

Mr Kganare asked about the practicality of mobile health care.

Mr A Van der Westhuizen (DA, Labour) commented that he was disconcerted about the funding of Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa (Bawusa). Government had played a role in fuelling strikes by funding people involved in it. He questioned the timing of food parcels. Wages had been paid according to government standards, which meant that government was in a sense protesting against it own standards.

Mr Van der Westhuizen remarked that Social Services had not been mentioned. They had to support poor learners, and also had to provide guidance on matters like alcohol abuse.

Ms Chanagri replied that it was indeed so. Better teamwork was needed.

Mr Van der Westhuizen welcomed the 50 bursaries, but felt that it could not change a situation where 600 000 people were involved. He asked if there would be access to bursary schemes of other departments. Over a period of two years, only one out of 200 would benefit, but there were billions in the National Skills Fund.

Mr Van der Westhuizen asked the DOL about provisional exemption for farmers from the minimum wage. He asked if they were geared to deal with many applications. There were sudden escalations. More staff had to be brought on board to deal with that.

Mr Van der Westhuizen remarked that if employment costs rose, more people would be unemployed.

Mr F Maserumule (ANC, Labour) said that it was like entering a room full of smoke. Something had to be done. Someone in the agricultural sector was out to make quick bucks. When one actually visited the farms, there was a different picture to be seen, and the departments would speak a different language if they went there. Risks had to be taken.

Ms N Twala (ANC, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) said that the Minister of Agriculture had called a meeting on 10 November 2012, at which employers had said that they had no mandate to discuss wage increases. There had been much anger, loss of life and chaos, because employers did not want to talk. It had to be made compulsory to come to the table and talk.

Ms Twala asked about the status of the NEDLAC process.

Ms M Phaliso (ANC, Agriculure, Forestry and Fisheries) remarked that farming was one of the poorest sectors of society. Negotiations had gone against workers. Workers had been self-organised, because they were not allowed to have trade unions.

Ms Phaliso asked about workers strikes and maternity leave, a moratorium on evictions, and called for an end to police brutality.

Mr M Nchabeleng, the Chairperson of the Labour Portfolio Committee, appealed for a focus on the Vulnerable Workers Summit. The rules had to be changed, and the way forward had to be marked out. The question was how Agriculture interacted with committees and departments.

Ms Phaliso said that there had to be links with Home Affairs to monitor applications for migrant workers.

Mr Nchabeleng asked what commitment the DoL was making, with reference to the Employment Services Bill.

Mr Kgobokoe praised the vision of the two Chairpersons who had called the meeting. He advised that the House continue the current exercise. About the question of what the DoL could do, he suggested that they come to the party, and support programmes for farm workers. The DAFF had a bursary scheme, and required resources. Agriculture was at a crossroads. Solutions to the vulnerability of farmers had to be found. Subsidies could be considered. Alternatives to exemptions from wage increases had to be explored.

Mr Johnson concluded that the DAFF would assume oversight responsibilities. Other departments would be roped in, to cover a broad socio-economic front. Emphasis could no longer fall exclusively on the De Doorns strikes. Socio-economic resolutions had to be put in place. Broader issues than affected vulnerable workers had to be addressed. He agreed with Mr Williams about vulnerable farmers. They had to compete with highly subsidised farmers elsewhere, and local products suffered.

Ms Steyn remarked that there were rumours of new strikes. She asked if the departments were discussing that.

Mr Johnson advised that paying too much heed to rumours be avoided.

Mr Nchabeleng concluded that issues of criminality had to be addressed. Medical ethics had to be considered. Issues like misleading sick notes had to be investigated by medical ethics bodies. There had to be justice for those who had lost jobs. Committee Researchers should come up with issues that had to be looked at. The DoL did not need to wait for permission from the PC to discuss issues.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.



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