South African farmworkers on strike

By on November 21, 2012

In the Western Cape of South Africa, where farmworkers produce fruits, and wines that are sold domestically and internationally, employees in 16 towns and farming communities have been on strike since Nov. 6. They are demanding a minimum wage increase from $8 to $20 per day. Many are members of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Nonetheless, the strikes are similar in character to the unprotected miners’ actions.

During the strike, the situation has turned violent. In Wolseley, crates of fruit were set alight, 42 people were arrested during the unrest, one person was killed, and five more wounded. Though police say the situation is under control, violence again flared on Nov. 16. Reportedly, the same day, 300 workers returned to their Wolseley jobs. The government had called for a two-week suspension of strike activity to foster negotiations around the wage increases.

Yet protests for higher wages are spreading. In the Hex River Valley in the Western Cape, businesses were torched and shops looted. Reportedly, roads were blocked with burning tires and rocks to prevent the transporting of commercial goods. Workers set vineyards on fire in DeDoorns, a farming town outside Cape Town.

A Nov. 16 statement said: “SACCAWU fully supports the striking farmworkers, their demands and the leadership role played by COSATU to defend these extremely vulnerable and low earning workers. Like the mineworkers earlier this year, farmworkers are hidden behind the fences of farms, they work under horrendous conditions, and they live in appalling conditions in a sector notorious for the brutality workers experience at the hand of employers.

“These farmworkers have signaled, ‘Enough is enough!’ This is a strike for higher wages, for better living conditions, for improved benefits and above all for Dignity!”

Miners’ strikes end

In the meantime, South African miners’ strikes have ended after months of unrest that took the lives of over 50 workers. The Anglo-American Platinum (Amplats) firm settled with the remaining miners to return workers to their jobs.

Because of these industrial actions, production has been reduced by more than 20 percent for the year. South Africa has 80 percent of the known reserves of platinum, a strategic mineral that is utilized in the automotive industry.

More than 100,000 workers striking in the platinum, gold, iron ore and chrome sectors had shut down large sections of the top industry in Africa’s largest economy. The most violent period in South African labor history since the fall of apartheid — with the massacre of 34 workers at Marikana, where Lonmin Platinum PLC refused to settle with miners seeking a 22 percent pay increase — sent shock waves throughout the country and the world.

Mine owners are threatening large-scale downsizing and restructuring to weaken labor union militancy. Many recent strikes were so-called “unprotected” actions; they fell outside the legal negotiating process between the National Union of Mineworkers and other labor organizations.

The miners’ efforts set off a political debate inside COSATU, with which the NUM is affiliated. COSATU is aligned with the ruling African National Congress party and the South African Communist Party, which welds significant influence inside NUM.

The ANC’s December congress will commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding. It will also elect the party leadership for the next five years. Speculation exists that President Jacob Zuma could face a challenge for his position from various elements within the organization.

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