COSATU will next month [March 2013] host a major conference, bringing together trade unions, civic society, government and business to discuss the state, level and impact of wages, bargaining, unemployment and inflation in various sectors in the country.
Patrick Craven, the national spokesman said the conference is aimed at finding solutions to the many economic challenges facing the country, particularly workers.
“The cost of living is too high. Walk into any shop and look at the prices and you will see what I am talking about. We’re talking about the workers who produce the food, but ironically many of them can’t buy the same food they produce,” he said.
He told Transform SA that there was a need to engage all stakeholders on the declining situation of workers, deplorable working conditions in some sectors, to try to find lasting solutions and set the country on a course of transformation and renewed hope.
“South Africa has enough resources for everyone. It’s time that we found a way to ensure that everyone benefits equitably from the resources we have as a country. For instance, we export a lot of food. COSATU is not against exporting, but we believe that it should not be at the expense of the hungry citizens,” he said.
Craven had been asked to comment about the recent announcement by Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant on the new minimum wage farm workers. Minister Oliphant announced an increase in entry level wages for farm workers from mostly R75 to R105 per nine-hour workday.
He said COSATU’s major focus was to recruit as many farm workers into trade unions. Craven said only 5% of workers in this sector were unionised. He said this was a very difficult sector, which was characterised by a lot of seasonal work and a geographical spread that is very challenging.
“We cautiously welcome the new minimum wage as an improvement, but it is not enough to take care of the basic needs of many workers. We want farm workers and indeed all workers to enjoy the fruits of their labour and benefit from available resources. We want them to have provident funds, medical aid and an improved life. All these issues will be raised in the conference,” he said.
Craven said other issues that would be pursued would be issues of higher pay and benefits, better accommodation, job security, proper contracts and the general wellbeing of workers.
“We’re not opposed to temporary work, but the times and dates must be clearly agreed upon,” he said.
Meanwhile, when Minister Oliphant announced the new minimum wage hopes were raised that it would finally put a lid on weeks of disturbances in South Africa’s oldest and most crucial sector.
However, it would seem that just as stakeholders were at the dawn of a reprieve, the trail is getting extremely steep, what with reports in last week’s Business Day that at least 2000 farm workers were issued with retrenchment notices and experts warning that thousands more jobs could be shed in the next few months as the new deal comes into operation in the agricultural sector, in March 2013.
Could this be the start of a backlash, or revenge attack by farm owners, who see job shedding as the appropriate response to the situation? These are the questions in the minds of players and observers in a sector touted by government to have the potential to create at least 1 million viable jobs by 2030.
The Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) said: “FAWU wants to remind farm owners that South Africans cannot approve such conduct by some of them almost 20 years later since freedom and democracy, with the land still in the hands of largely white people, and 100 years later since the institutionalised (1913 Land Act) takeover of the already inadequate land from black people and creation of black farm workers, and 360 years later since violent occupation of land by settlers from indigenous people.
We still hope that those farm owners who are truly experiencing cash-flow challenges will take advantage of the call by the Minister of Labour to ask for a reprieve based on financial information provided. Equally, we wish to caution the Minister to deal with such information from a forensic approach as some complicated structure is used on the balance sheet of farms and this may even influence or affect the cash-flow picture.”
Agri South Africa said: “It is indicative that popular demands for higher wages carried more weight in the decision than its implications on the sustainability of the industry, including its ability to maintain jobs.
The implication of this wage adjustment in an industry where farmers are price takers and not price makers, especially in international context, is not conducive to confidence, investment and the maintenance of the industry’s contribution to food security.
Research has also indicated that it is especially small and medium sized farmers who cannot afford to pay wages of R105 per day. This will inevitably impact negatively on the agricultural transformation process.”
However, Craven said that was a ploy to try and intimidate workers into accepting lower pay. “We can’t accept that. Those are separate issues. Workers can’t be expected to live below acceptable minimum standards in order to solve other’s financial problems like water and electricity,” he said.
Written by: Musa Ndlangamandla – Transform SA Ad Sales/Editorial Executive.
Musa is a senior journalist from Swaziland and until January 2012 he was Chief Editor of The Swazi Observer Group of Newspapers. He is a former advisor and speech writer to King Mswati III. Musa studied Law and holds a number of certificates from leading schools of Journalism. He has travelled to over 35 countries on assignment. He also writes as a freelancer for various leading publications.