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South African Farmworkers Resume Strike Over Higher Wages

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Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Thousands of farmworkers demanding higher wages in South Africa’s biggest table grape-growing region resumed a strike after pay talks between the government, unions and the main farmers’ organization stalled.

Workers staged protests today in several towns in the Western Cape Province, demanding that the minimum wage be increased to 150 rand ($17) a day from 70 rand. Provincial police spokesman Andre Traut said he had received no reports of violence and was unable to immediately confirm radio reports that tear gas and rubber bullets had been used to disperse crowds in the southern towns of Franschhoek and Robertson.

In Stofland, a shanty settlement on the outskirts of De Doorns, about 150 kilometers (94 miles) northeast of Cape Town, hundreds of people milled in the streets and the surrounding vineyards were mostly devoid of workers. About 50 protesters marched through the streets singing songs and carrying banners of the United Democratic Front, a civil rights group, before converging on a dusty soccer field to be addressed by union leaders.

“The farmers pay us dirt,” Charlene Singoso, 40, who has worked on a grape farm for the past seven years and earns 80 rand a day, said in an interview. “I can only strike for one day. I have three kids to support.”

Burnt Down

Farmworkers burnt down vineyards and sheds, causing damages estimated at 120 million rand during strikes that began on Nov. 6, according to AgriSA, the main farmers group. Two people have died.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions helped broker a two-week suspension of the strike while wages were reviewed. The labor action resumed after the government said it could only legislate new minimum pay from April when the prevailing rates will have been in place for 12 months.

Workers from at least five towns have joined the latest protests, which were proceeding peacefully as planned, Mario Wanza, one of the strike coordinators, said in an interview in De Doorns.

Employers rejected a compromise proposal by unions to raise pay to 100 rand plus a bonus based on harvest profits, South Africa’s Business Day newspaper reported.

“We want 150,” said Ricardo van Wyk, a part-time grape picker who joined a roadside picket outside the town of Worcester. “It must happen today. We will strike until we get that money.”

Mining Strikes

A meeting between the negotiating parties scheduled for 10 a.m. local time was canceled by Tina Joemat-Pettersson, minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, according to Carl Opperman, provincial president of farmers’ group AgriSA. A meeting between the minister and “people from the farming sector” is scheduled for today, Palesa Mokomela, a spokeswoman for the minister, said by phone, declining to state a time.

South Africa’s worst mining strikes since the end of white minority rule in 1994 started at platinum operations in August, spreading to gold, coal and iron sites. Truck drivers went on a 2 1/2-week long strike on Sept. 24, also demanding higher wages.

The harvest season for table grapes in the Western Cape will start at the beginning of January. South Africa is the continent’s biggest exporter of the fruit.

“If things come right, we’ll stop the strike,” Johannes van Rooi, 27, who has worked on a grape farm for 12 years earning 75 rand a day, said in De Doorns. “You can’t even buy stuff your kids need for school.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Cohen in De Doorns at mcohen21@bloomberg.net; Jaco Visser in Johannesburg at avisser3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nasreen Seria at nseria@bloomberg.net

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