by Anton Rabe

Labour unrest in SA

More than just agricultural wage disputes in the Western Cape

Farm wage disputes could have greater implications for the rest of South Africa
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High-level discussions held on 3 December 2012, which tried to resolve the labour unrest situation in the Western Cape, confirmed that dissatisfaction involves much more than mere minimum wages. Various social concerns need to be addressed as well.

Furthermore, it became evident that the wage and related challenges are not exclusive, but mainly that of seasonal workers who have to earn their annual income over a period of a few months. 

Agri SA, during discussions, confirmed that the minimum wage is nothing more than a minimum; that real wages should preferably, and in most cases, be higher than the minimum wage; that applicable wages be negotiated at farm level because practices and circumstances differ between farms; that performance bonuses should increasingly be used to supplement income; and that policies should be applied which could enhance the profitability of agriculture as well as the sector’s ability to provide quality employment opportunities on a broad basis. 

It was noted that Western Cape producers’ 'cost to company' of labourers is already up to R100 or more per day in peak season, taking into account performance bonuses. Agri SA was requested that this should serve as point of departure for an interim remuneration offer. Agri SA reconfirmed its position regarding this, namely that no immediate commitment can be given and that the determination of a new minimum wage must be the result of a process in terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. 

Agriculture thus stands before a choice that will influence and be of significance to the rest of South Africa. The big gap in social well-being and prosperity between communities holds great risks for sustainability, which have to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The question, however, is how to address this challenge.

A narrow-minded and shortsighted focus on the minimum wage only denies the complexity of the issue and holds the potential to destroy job opportunities rather than to contribute constructively to broad-based economic and social development. 

In these circumstances, agriculture and South Africa have to deal with a fundamental challenge: is pressure applied by means of anarchy the way by which disputes are to be resolved, irrespective of the longer term consequences thereof, or should a value-based approach, respecting the rule of law, be the preferred option? Investors’ uncertainty about the way by which recent wage disputes in South Africa have been settled clearly demonstrates why Agri SA cannot see its way open to meet unrealistic demands within a short time frame to resolve differences. 

Agri SA, in good faith, participated in talks with representatives from labour, but could not obtain its co-operation toward a process within the legal framework and a more realistic time frame to reach sustainable solutions for this complex issue. Nonetheless, Agri SA remains committed to constructive dialogue.

Minister of Labour Mildred Olifant clearly indicated that any undertaking from agriculture to increase wages immediately will hold no legal status due to the fact that minimum wages can be legally amended only by March 2013. 

In terms of potential strikes on Tuesday, 4 December 2012, Agri SA trusts that those organising the strike did follow the legal application process and that law and order will prevail. 

 

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