De Doorns farm workers strike after wages dropped

Tariro Washinyira

5 September 2012

An ongoing wage dispute that led to an unprotected strike by farm workers highlights the complex relationship between farmers and workers in the De Doorns area.

Keurboschkloof is a farm in De Doorns that employs about 300 workers. The farm produces export-quality grapes. The farm used to be run by Perry Smith. He died a few months ago but before he passed away, South African Fruit Exporters (SAFE) entered a contract with him to manage the farm.

Worker representatives say this has not worked out well for them. They say their wages have been reduced and that they have been changed from permanent to seasonal employees. One of the workers, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I have worked for ten years for this farm and I am not happy with the current situation. Every fortnight when we get our wages the money is always short and the working conditions have become very bad since we got new management.”

In response, SAFE’s Chief Financial Officer, Quentin Scott said, “We do not have any outstanding monies due to employees or outstanding queries.” He said that based on their information, conditions had improved since SAFE took over.

Two consecutive payslips from one of the workers shows that her hourly rate was reduced from R14.51 to R10.60, resulting in a substantial drop in her wages. Before SAFE took over, the lowest paid worker was getting R90 per day and the highest was getting R130 per day.

In response, Scott said that the current minimum wage in the area is R67 per employee. “The seasonal workers currently receive R75 per day and R2 per day extra dependent on attendance incentive.” He said that the wages had dropped because, “previously the employer worked and prepared the crop differently. Based on our approach this results in the employment of 200 additional [seasonal workers] for a three month period (October to December). This improves the effectiveness and performance on the farm.”

A worker’s committee of seven people representing the farm workers approached People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP) for help. PASSOP organised a meeting for the workers where they heard their grievances and explained their rights. PASSOP also put the workers in touch with COSATU. Another union, Building Wood and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (BAWUSA), is also trying to organise the workers. But at this stage the workers are not yet members of any union. On 13 August, the workers went on a one-day unprotected strike in protest against their slashed wage rate. Following the strike, negotiations between SAFE and the workers led to a temporary agreement which states the following:

Owen Maromo of PASSOP explained to GroundUp that when the farm owner fell sick earlier this year he gave SAFE a five year contract to run the farm. Smith introduced the employees to the new management and assured them that their jobs were safe, that there would be no contract changes and that everything would remain the same, including their employee benefits. He said, “Some of the workers have been employed there for over 18 years. The workers feel exploited and are not happy with the way SAFE changed their permanent contracts to seasonal contracts when the farm owner died three months ago. The new seasonal contracts state that the employees are no longer permanent workers but seasonal. ”

Scott however disputes this, “When SAFE leased the farm in June 2011, permanent workers and supervisors were taken over on the same terms and conditions. There was no change in their contracts. Permanents remained permanent.”

The workers are also demanding that eight of their colleagues who were dismissed a few weeks ago be reinstated. At a meeting of Saturday, one of the workers’ representatives said that SAFE had claimed they made a R4 million loss. “If that turns out to be untrue … we are going to demand a 10% share of the farm’s profit.” SAFE had not responded to these claims by the time of publication.