CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - A strike by farm workers in South Africa in which three protesters were killed and vineyards set ablaze was called off on Wednesday ahead of a review of the minimum wage by the government next month.
Thousands of protesters have clashed sporadically with police since December and the strike resumed in earnest three weeks ago, with workers demanding their daily pay more than double to 150 rand ($17) from current minimum level of 69 rand.
The strike in the Western Cape came at the end of a wave of labour unrest that began in South Africa’s platinum mines in August and swept through the trucking and agriculture sectors, hitting growth and undermining its investment reputation.
The government is expected to announce new minimum wages in the first week of February, with them due to come into law on March 1.
“We have called off the strike,” Nosey Pieterse, general secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa (Bawusa), said.
Industry groups Agri Western Cape and AgriSA said farmers had been told about the strike’s suspension and confirmed all areas were quiet and people were back at work processing grapes for the table. The region’s wine industry has not been affected.
However, critical issues for the labour-intensive agriculture industry remain unanswered, including disciplinary action against strikers, increased union access to farms and, most importantly, the minimum wage - meaning the conflict may not yet be over.
During the past weeks, police have used rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse protesters blocking highways and torching vineyards and warehouses in Cape Town’s farming belt to demand a rise in what they call “slave wages”.
The farms, mainly owned by the white minority, say they cannot afford to pay their mostly black workers any more money because of the cost of fuel and electricity.
Indeed, farmers in the Hex River Valley, where the farm protests were concentrated, fear the government may set the basic salary too high, resulting in job losses if farmers rely more on machinery.
“If the minimum rate is too high, say 100 rand a day, the permanent staff will lose their jobs,” Michael Laubscher, chairman of the Hex River Table Grape Association, told Reuters.
The valley, which produces around one third of South Africa’s total grape exports, employs 5,000 permanent workers and an additional 8,000 seasonal workers at harvest time.
The Employment Conditions Commission, a body that advises the labour minister on farm workers’ wages, meets on Thursday to consider submissions collated nationwide during public hearings.
“There is no indication on what the wage increase will be. We have gathered information and the body dealing with this will make recommendations to the minister,” said Titus Mtsweti, a senior official at the Department of Labour.
Struggling with slow economic growth, South Africa is bracing for more unrest in the crucial mining sector, with Anglo American Platinum, the world’s top platinum producer, planning to close two mines and lay of 14,000 workers.
On top of the annual “strike season” that tends to kick off in the second quarter, unions and mining companies are starting to draw up the battle-lines for their two-yearly industry-wide wage negotiations in the coming months.
Reporting by Wendell Roelf and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Ed Cropley and Alison Williams