Thousands of farm workers in the Sundays River Valley area in the Eastern Cape have been striking since last Thursday. They are demanding higher wages.
The strike turned violent on Friday, resulting in police arresting seven people in Kirkwood. Hundreds of workers shut down white-owned shops and urged workers to join in their protest. They did not shut down what they perceived to be Chinese- or foreign-owned shops. The protesters said they wanted workers in white-owned shops to stop working.
Workers on the citrus farms of Addo and Kirkwood want a minimum wage of R20 an hour. But employers say they have already agreed to this, and that workers were forced to protest against their will by the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco).
Vuyisile Sikani, chairperson of the Sundays River Workers Forum and Sanco, said workers were being exploited by their employers.
“Most workers in the citrus farms and factories are earning R16 an hour. That amount is too little given the type of job they do. Workers are not even provided with protective clothing. They do not have work suits, raincoats, gloves and other protective clothing. Yet their work exposes them to hazardous chemicals and poisonous snakes.”
Thamsaqa Hina is a fruit harvester. He said he earns R16.80 an hour.
“I have been working for more than two years on the farm. We are only allowed one hour for lunch. There is no time for a tea break. We are also not provided with protective clothing. We have to use our own clothing despite [the fact] that there are dangerous chemicals sprayed on the oranges and lemons.”
He complained that workers were not given sick leave even if they fell sick or were injured at work.
“If a seasonal worker falls sick or gets injured, he is fired on the spot. Workers have no choice but are forced to work even when they are sick. The employers take advantage of the high unemployment situation of the area,” he said.
A worker from Lesotho said that the farmer he works for deducts R30 every fortnight for their work suits.
“We are paid R17 an hour. You can get more if you join the incentive system whereby a worker is paid R2.20 per container of fruits. It is not easy to fill the container to the satisfaction of the supervisor. It is a very cruel way of paying workers because a worker virtually falls under the mercy of his supervisor.”
But Hannes De Waal, spokesperson for the Sundays River Citrus Company, a group of farmers, disputed these claims. He also accused Sanco of inciting workers to strike.
“It is not that farmers don’t want to pay the gazzeted minimum wage. We in fact agreed last week with our workers and increased their wages, from R16 an hour to R18 this year, then to R20 next year. The workers were satisfied because, at present, no worker is earning less than R18 per hour. We sense that this is not coming from them but Sanco. They are the ones busy mobilising our workers when they really know that this is the most important time for citrus harvesting.”
“We do a lot for the communities around our farms and factories. We help them with water, electricity and even assist when there is sewage blockage. Our workers really know this and they appreciate it,” said De Waal. “There are workers who earn more than the prescribed minimum wage of R20 an hour through the incentive system. A worker is paid according to what he delivers. We weigh all their fruits and pay them against the weight. Many hard-working and experienced workers are prospering because of this scheme. This is the reason why most of our workers will not want the R20 an hour minimum wage.”
De Waal could not quantify the cost of the losses as a result of the strike, but confirmed that it ran into millions.
“This is a R3 billion industry and obviously any stoppage, especially during this time of harvesting and processing, has a profound effect. We met Sanco representatives when the strike started but we did not reach an agreement.”
Meanwhile the SAPS said seven people were arrested early on Friday in Kirkwood for public violence. They are appearing in the Kirkwood Magistrates’ Court on Monday.
“It is alleged that the suspects drove around the Kirkwood area and ordered workers not to report for work and they allegedly participated in actions of provoking unlawful behaviour,” said Captain Gerda Swart. She said the situation remained tense.