Update on strikes and mass opposition to the ANC Government
SA’s labour upheavals a mere sideshow
November 11 2012 at 06:51pm
In a world wracked by ongoing economic crises, what is the role of trade unions? And if they focus solely on “bread-and-butter issues”, are they, as National Union of Mineworkers spokesman Lesiba Seshoka says, doomed to fail because “broader policies are shaped at a political level”.
What, in fact, is meant by “a political level”? And are not bread-and-butter issues – generally defined as wages and conditions – political to the core?
These questions came to the fore again in South Africa in the aftermath of Marikana. But they are also being asked around the world as unions become embroiled in increasingly fractious relations with employers, governments and, all too often, their own members.
In the process, sight is lost of the fact that trade unions emerged as a reaction to the economic system and not as an alternative; that the defensive organisations of the sellers of labour gain their greatest power through uniting workers as workers, irrespective of their differences. Only when there is a general threat to their wellbeing – to their “bread and butter” – do most organised workers rally in a manner that can sometimes spill over into radical political change or revolution.
But such radical change can be reactionary or progressive: it can become repressive and authoritarian or extend democratic control and human rights. Right now, the world seems to be on the cusp of moving one way or the other.
Observing the scene from London, it is evident that there is growing anger across Europe about high levels of unemployment, especially among men and women under the age of 25, and to the fact that real incomes for the majority of workers, globally, are declining. Bread, let alone butter, is under general threat.
In several countries, there is also considerable anger and disillusionment at trade union leaders who are seen – rightly or wrongly – to enjoy too cosy a relationship with employers or political parties in or out of power. Such tensions have become acute amid exploding petrol bombs in Athens and the brutal police repression of protests in Madrid, and are exacerbated by various forces on the political margins that are clamouring to fill developing political vacuums.
Given this background, and looked at from the perspective of Europe, the current industrial upheavals in South Africa are merely a sideshow in an often confusing carnival of revolt against the harsh consequences of a system in crisis. Opposition to austerity is a common theme.
Yet austerity, along with assurances that the pain is necessary in order to achieve the ultimate gain, seems a universal theme among those in power. As a result, the centre in many countries, in the form of the unions and their sometimes erstwhile political allies, is looking decidedly shaky.
The same applies in South Africa, where the centre – epitomised by the ANC-led alliance – seems to be holding up rather better than its counterparts in countries such as Greece or Spain. But everywhere the established order seems under pressure.
Even in Britain, still basking in the afterglow of a successfully staged Olympiad, there are now signs of subterranean rumblings. How strong these are – and how angry – should become clear as more anti-austerity protests get under way.
Britain’s Trade Union Congress (TUC) organised well attended protest marches in London, Glasgow and Belfast on October 20. The turnouts, especially in London, revealed the strength of popular feeling about growing unemployment and the declining spending power of wages as well as probable disillusionment with protest marches. The estimated 150 000 who turned out in London on October 20 was a far cry from the near 1 million who last year marched against the war in Afghanistan.
In fact, it is not since the massive anti-poll tax march in 1990 that such protests have done much more than highlight levels of disgruntlement. That massive march swamped central London. Police could not contain this surge of humanity, scuffles broke out – and escalated into a full-scale riot that signalled the end of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative (Tory) government.
The next few years, therefore, seem to promise considerable turmoil in what is still a major export market for South Africa. The sideshow south of the Limpopo therefore looks likely to be in for some even tougher times.
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- Minister in urgent bid to resolve strike impasse
- Who is behind De Doorns strike?
- De Doorns farmworkers march
There were signs of calm in the rural town of De Doorns yesterday as about a third of workers started to return to work, but this happened as the ruling party’s alliance partner, Cosatu, started a campaign to ramp up protests on South African farms.
In the Western Cape, Cosatu warned that the week-long strike was just the start of “a call to action in solidarity with farm workers of De Doorns and Wellington and farm workers across the country”. It, together with the De Doorns workers’ committee and Sikhula Sonke, pledged rolling mass action across the country.
While Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson held talks with farmers represented by the National African Farmers’ Association, which represents black farmers; AgriSA, which is largely representative of white farmers; and the Transvaal Agricultural Union yesterday, Cosatu held a “steamrolling” mass action press conference in Stellenbosch.
While AgriSA president Johannes Moller said there was definitely “a political element” to the protests in the Hex River Valley – a wine and grape product producing area, he did not want to criticise any particular political organisation.
He said there were reports of a smattering of farm protests in Mpumalanga and Limpopo – concentrated around Tzaneen – as well.
He did note that politicians such as ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman and ANC Cape Town caucus leader Tony Ehrenreich had been voluble about their support for mass action by farm workers.
Protest action that turned violent started last week when workers from about 110 farms blockaded the N1, pouring rocks across the road that runs through De Doorns. They set fire to 50 vineyards, which is estimated to have cost the industry between R12 million and R15m.
Ehrenreich, who is the regional secretary of Cosatu, led a media briefing attended by a range of organisations last night. He noted that the worker unions, community organisations, NGOs and farm worker committees had formed “a coalition” that would co-ordinate a campaign for a living wage and decent living and working conditions on the farms in the country.
It was an indication that there were differences in the alliance on how to proceed, with the national minister seeking a solution to the call for a doubling in wages to R150 a day for workers. She pledged at the meeting with farmers’ organisations that she would consult with the labour and rural development department to form an inter-ministerial committee to deal with the wage issue.
Last week she appeared to back a farmer resolution to raise the minimum wage from R70 to R80 a day, some R70 short of what is being demanded.
But worker organisations allied to the ruling ANC last night announced that Ehrenreich had been appointed “coalition chairperson” and the minimum wage rate would not be accepted. “Farm workers are saying they want an end to poverty wages and slave conditions on the farms,” he said.
Ehrenreich said on Saturday that negotiations between Joemat-Pettersson, the leadership of AgriSA, Agri Wes-Cape, the Hex Valley table grape farmers, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), unions including Cosatu and the farm workers from De Doorns and Wellington, failed to reach a decision on the demands for a living wage and for better living and working conditions.
While Joemat-Pettersson’s spokesman could not be reached for comment, Moller said the minister had undertaken to write to the Departments of Labour and Rural Development and Land Affairs.
“They will look again at the minimum wages in agriculture, based on sound research and affordability with inputs from the different sectors.”
Moller said, however, he was concerned that the agreed-to minimum wages that had been gazetted by the Labour Department were now being flouted. He noted that the costs for 1 hectare of table grapes was about R350 000 a year and any change in costs could put farmers in trouble.
Meanwhile, the farmers groups, including Agri Wes-Cape, undertook to ask the regional government to look into improving the living conditions in the De Doorns’ informal settlement.
Moller noted that the farms in the Hex River Valley were “routinely audited” before they exported their goods to Europe and elsewhere. The farm workers’ living conditions had to be up to scratch. However, many of the workers lived in the informal settlement at De Doorns.
Measures to improve service delivery at this township were therefore considered urgent, Moller said.
Western Cape agriculture department spokesman Wouter Kriel said MEC Gerhard van Rensburg did not wish to get involved further as worker-farmer negotiations were now taking place with the facilitation of the CCMA.
However, it is understood that about 6 000 of the 16 000 workers who do “seasonal” jobs were back on the lands.
Sapa reported that 11 people were arrested early yesterday, when a group of some 80 people carrying sticks and pangas tried to prevent farm workers from going to work.
Damage counted after Cape protests
November 13 2012 at 08:07pm
Farm workers walk along the N1 after two farms on eithe side of the highway was set alight. File photo by Henk Kruger/Cape Argus
- De Doorns protesters hurt cop
- De Doorns farmworkers march
- Cops deny attack on farm workers
- Minister on her way to De Doorns
De Doorns, Western Cape – Protesting farm workers have caused damages estimated at R500 000 in the Witzenburg municipality, Western Cape, municipal spokeswoman Anette Radjoo said on Tuesday.
“Property damage has been sustained including the destruction of a packing shed, veld fires, damage to farming crops, burning of tyres in streets and throwing of stones,” she said.
The police had erected roadblocks, detours and barricades in areas for the public’s protection.
A policeman suffered a head injury when he was hit by a stone thrown by a protesting farm worker in Ceres on Tuesday. He had to be admitted to hospital, said Lt-Col Andre Traut. He was in a stable condition.
Farm workers in the area have been engaged in a wage dispute since last week.
They are demanding a wage of R150 a day and better working conditions.
Traut said the largest disruptions were in De Doorns, Ceres, Robertson, Prince Alfred Hamlet and Somerset West.
Ten people were arrested for public violence and intimidation on Monday.
The Transvaal Agricultural Union of SA (Tau-SA) advised its members not to pay workers less than the minimum wage.
“The problems of De Doorns cannot be made the problem of the entire agricultural industry,” it said.
“We encourage workers to seek work and to accept service where they receive the best salary.”
Increasing minimum wages in agriculture would however lead to further dismissals, it said.
Employer body Agri Wes-Cape said that the intimidation of farm workers and producers should immediately end.
Police denied allegations that they had attacked a marching group of people in Nduli and Prince Alfred Hamlet.
The Workers International Vanguard Party alleged that police attacked marchers, who in turn retaliated by burning police vehicles.
Agri Wes-Cape CEO Carl Opperman called on farmers and workers to talk to each other directly about grievances rather than relying on “so-called leaders”.
“We are asking the leaders in government to hold the so-called leaders of farm workers, who bus people in to create ‘critical mass’ for protest action,” he said.
“The tactics of intimidation, violence and fear which women and children are exposed to, are a clear indication of the manner in which union leaders are working.”
The Black Association of the Agriculture Sector (Bawsi) said many farmers were guilty of intimidating their employees.
Bawsi president Nosey Pieterse said they had been travelling through De Doorns since early on Tuesday morning “rescuing” workers from farmers.
“We have been marching through the farm roads in De Doorns to pick up those workers who called us, saying they were intimidated by farmers and threatened with evictions,” he said.
“We travelled 10km by foot with a Nyala (armoured police vehicle) in front of us, and about 1000 workers joined us.”
He said he had received “frenzied” calls from police in Ceres asking him to intervene in labour matters there.
Pieterse said he had received reports of farm worker strikes in Riebeek-Kasteel, Citrusdal, Piketberg, Grabouw and Villiersdorp. – Sapa