S African farm workers clash with police in wages protest
Violent clashes between farm workers and police in South Africa’s picturesque winelands region continued yesterday despite unions agreeing to suspend strike action for two weeks while it renegotiated the minimum wage with government.
Tens of thousands of farmworkers have been involved in violent protests across the Western Cape province since early last week over low wages and poor living conditions.
Millions of euro in damage has been done to farms that supply fruit and wine to supermarkets throughout Europe, including Ireland, and at least one person has died in the unrest so far.
Despite farmworkers agreeing to suspend their strike action, it appears the unrest has broadened into a general service delivery protest that has affected at least 16 towns in the province so far.
Police fired rubber bullets and tear-gas at protesters in the rural towns of Ceres and De Doorns yesterday as running battles with the authorities continued.
On Wednesday Western Cape premier Helen Zille called on the government to dispatch members of the armed forces into the Hex River valley, where violent protests began on November 8th, as police were “stretched thin” around the province.
The workers are demanding a doubling in their daily wage from 70 rand (€6.20) to 150 (€13.29), and better working conditions.
The epicentre of the unrest is the town of De Doorns, where frustrated farmworkers have been involved in running battles with the police since they downed tools on November 8th.
‘Sick from pesticides’
Local farm labourer Rosemary Filandre (47) told The Irish Times she has been getting paid R79 (€6.90) per day since she started working for a De Doorns farmer six years ago.
“We have been asking for a wage increase for a long time but our employers ignore us. I am the only person working in our family and the money I get is not enough. After six years working I have not been given a single pay increase.
“When I get sick from the pesticides the farmers use, the money for the doctor’s prescription is taken out of our wages, so often we get far less than R79 a day when deductions like this are made,” she complained.
Many of De Doorns’s farmworkers live at the Dust Country informal settlement. Its muddy streets are littered with rubbish and vermin and shack dwellings are the predominant structures in which people live.
On a visit to local resident Beauty Kndiza, the run-down interior of her two-roomed house was besieged by flies, and there was one loaf of bread to feed a family of eight that day.
The 65-year-old grandmother said her son, Fundi, one of the farm workers on strike, earned the only money her family had coming into the house. They could not afford electricity and often had to survive on one meal a day.
“We cannot live on the money that Fundi earns so we rely on help from our neighbours. Our life here is very bad. We cannot afford meat or vegetables . . . There is no difference between our lives now and the life we had during apartheid.”
The farmers argue they cannot afford to pay their fruit pickers the extra money.
But workers reject this, saying much of the produce they harvest is for the export market, which gives farmers a much higher return than locally sold fruit and wine.