Farm labourers are the latest group to join a wave of strikes across South Africa in recent months as food price increases outstrip the official inflation rate.
The strikers, mainly non-unionized farm workers in the wine and fruit producing province of the Western Cape, are demanding a more than doubling of their day rate to R150 (US$17).
The minimum daily wage established by the ruling ANC government’s labour department for farmworkers is R69 ($7.8).
The official 2012 inflation rate is about 6 percent - a figure generally used as a yardstick for annual pay increases. But recently cooking oil, meat and sugar prices have been rising by an annualized rate of more than 10 percent, according to the latest survey by the University of South Africa’s Bureau of Market Research.
The price of the staple maize meal in 2012 increased by between 41.3- 63.9 percent, according to the survey, which also found that among the country’s poorest households (with annual earnings of up to the equivalent of $6,130) expenditure was 21.4 percent higher than incomes - the gap being bridged by unsecured loans.
The Dust Country informal settlement on the fringes of De Doorns, a rural town 148km east of Cape Town, is at the epicentre of the strike, which has seen vineyards and warehouses torched.
Sean Yanta, a 27-year-old father of three who has been working on a De Doorns farm as a grape picker for the past five years, has to take care of his three children and girlfriend on his income of R69 (US$7.76) per day.
Yanta said he works from 6am to 6pm seven days a week during the picking season, but still struggles to pay for everyday necessities.
“There are a lot of times when there is no food in the house and trying to buy clothes for a young family is very difficult. I would like to work at something else so that I can earn more money, but the only job for most people in this area is farm work,” he told IRIN.
Farm labourer Rosemary Filandre, 47, who joined the strike on 5 November, earns R10 (US$1.12) more a day than Yanta at another farm in the area, but the extra income does not go far in the current economic climate, she said.
Despite having worked for her current employers for six years, Filandre said she has never received a pay rise, even though she has sought one on many occasions.
“We have to take our own food for breakfast and lunch, and we must pay for fruit if we want to take some home. Even though we work all day in the sun, there are no little benefits like some free fruit at the end of a week,” she said.
The agricultural strike began on farms producing table grapes, largely earmarked for the export market, and has spread to other parts of the fruit and wine producing region, which is a major foreign currency earner for the country. Strikers argue exports provide higher returns so they should have higher wages, but farmers say weak international demand for table grapes has seen the price drop by nearly 25 percent.
There are tentative proposals by government for farmworker minimum wages to be determined by the profitability of each sector within commercial agriculture. A call by government for a two-week suspension of the strike - to provide time to draft new minimum wages - has largely been ignored.
Low wages and poor working and living conditions have blighted South Africa’s agriculture sector for decades. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report entitled Ripe For Abuse catalogued the desperate lives of farmworkers.
“Despite their critical role in the success of the country’s valuable fruit, wine, and tourism industries, farmworkers benefit very little, in large part because they are subject to exploitative conditions and human rights abuses without sufficient protection of their rights,” the report said.
Fairtrade Label South Africa said in a statement to IRIN: “Instead of blame-shifting and politicizing the situation, it is time that policymakers look at the facts. The reality is that farmworkers are among the worst paid employees in South Africa whose working and living conditions are still below standard. Fairtrade certification has had [a] positive impact on the lives of farm dwellers at certified farms in South Africa.”
A socially responsible company?
Fairtrade International, an organization recognizing ethical business practices, certified the Western Cape’s Bosman Family Vineyards in 2009, in recognition that “the conditions of production and trade of our wine grapes are socially and economically fair and environmentally responsible,” the wine producer says on its website.
Managing director Petrus Bosman told IRIN their business had adopted a social responsibility ethos, which had seen the transfer of property ownership of 438 hectares of vineyards to their employees.
The wine company has built 120 staff houses on their 11 estates, provides crèches for employees’ children, pays for extra primary school lessons to improve literacy and numeracy skills, and gives financial support for high school and tertiary education.
The lowest paid farmworker has a day rate of R80 ($9), but also receives a range of benefits, such as free accommodation and private healthcare insurance, which Bosman says “in monetary terms” is equivalent to an additional R160 ($18) a day.