“Ethical trade” wine farmer accused of strangling employee

| Kimon de Greef
Csaawu organiser Gerald Slingers, in red, and other workers at Eilandia farm outside Robertson. Slingers alleges that his employer attacked him for trying to educate his colleagues about unionisation and collective representation. Photo by Kimon de Greef.

A Robertson farm worker has laid a charge of assault against his employer after allegedly being “slapped and choked” on Wednesday morning. The attack, he said, was punishment for inviting a farm workers’ union leader onto the property. A case of assault is being investigated by the police.

Gerald Slingers, 26, told GroundUp that farmer Migo Viljoen twice strangled him to the point of unconsciousness on Viljoen’s farm, Eilandia, outside Robertson. The alleged attack took place at a remote location, out of sight of witnesses.

In a press statement condemning the attack, farm workers union the Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (Csaawu) drew attention to the fact that Eilandia was a member of the Stellenbosch based WIETA Agricultural Ethical Trade Initiative. The organisation has confirmed this to GroundUp.

“WIETA condemns in the strongest terms any acts of physical and verbal abuse by any party,” said Linda Lipparoni, the organisation’s CEO.

“The protection of farm workers against all forms of discrimination and intimidation is part of the WIETA code. The right to freely associate and to bargain collectively is a key labour right under the provision of the Code.”

She added that the allegations would be investigated “immediately” and that Slingers and Csaawu would be invited to participate.

Meanwhile, Slingers provided GroundUp with a graphic account of the alleged assault.

“I felt my legs shaking and started to pass out,” he said. “He released his grip and I gasped for air. When he heard that, he started choking me again. Afterwards, he told me I wouldn’t be able to do anything as nobody had seen the incident.”

The previous evening, Karel Swart, general secretary of Csaawu, was prevented by Viljoen from addressing an after-hours workers meeting at a worker’s house on Eilandia. Viljoen asked Swart to leave the property.

“He drove over in his bakkie five minutes after we began. He told me that I was trespassing on his farm and that I had to go. I resisted at first, but then I left to avoid trouble,” said Swart.

On his way out, Swart passed the police, who had been called to remove him from the premises, he said.

CSAAWU has gained popular support in the Robertson area for representing farmworkers in the wake of the 2012 strikes, which triggered hundreds of unlawful dismissals across the Western Cape. The union is currently threatened with closure after being handed cost orders totaling R600,000 from two unsuccessful Labour Court cases.

The agricultural sector has some of the lowest rates of organised worker representation in South Africa, with unions like Csaawu claiming the national rate of unionisation is lower than 5 percent.

CSAAWU’s statement stressed that the incident was not isolated, but formed part of an ongoing trend on farms throughout the region to deny workers their legal right to freely associate, and to stem the growth of farm worker unions.

Swart, who helped Slingers lay an assault charge at Robertson police station, told GroundUp that he was “shocked” by the attack.

“Why, 20 years after democracy, can farmers still treat workers as property? How can farmers enforce trespassing laws against union representatives? It’s as if we’re still living in a system of slavery,” he said.

At Eilandia, farm workers claimed that Viljoen had used physical violence against them in the past, but nobody had ever reported him to the police.

“This isn’t the first time,” said a middle-aged woman who asked to remain anonymous.

“Many people here have stories to tell. They keep quiet because they’re afraid of losing their jobs.”

Slingers, though, was confident that the law would protect him.

“We’re learning about our rights. We’re standing up for ourselves now,” he said. “We aren’t asking for much. We just want to be treated decently, like human beings.”

Police spokesman Colonel Tembinkosi Kinana confirmed that a criminal case had been opened against Viljoen, with a court date scheduled early next year. Viljoen had not responded to calls and messages at the time of publishing.

Additional reporting by Daneel Knoetze

TOPICS:  Assault Crime Labour

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