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South African Union Calls Off Strike at Western Cape Grape Farms

Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- South Africa’s Food and Allied Workers Union called off a strike by farmworkers in the country’s biggest table-grape producing region while it pursues talks with employers about increasing minimum wages.

Thousands of workers have embarked on intermittent strikes since November, demanding that the minimum daily wage be increased to 150 rand ($17) from 70 rand. Three people died, vineyards and packing sheds were torched and harvesting was disrupted.

On Jan. 16, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor group known as Cosatu, said the strike would be suspended for a week in about 15 rural towns to allow for wage negotiations. Workers in De Doorns in the Hex River Valley, about 150 kilometers (94 miles) northeast of Cape Town, opted to continue striking.

The leadership of the Food and Allied Workers Union, or FAWU, met workers in De Doorns yesterday and called for an end to the labor action, Katishi Masemola, the union’s general secretary, said in an e-mailed statement today.

“As from Wednesday, workers will start trickling back to their workplaces,” he said. “Farm-by-farm talks will still continue. Workers have asked FAWU to still pursue” talks with the Hex River Table Grape Producers’ Association about setting minimum wages for all farms in the area.

Cosatu, whose affiliate unions include FAWU, will release a statement later today, Mike Louw, an organizer for the federation, said by phone from Cape Town.

Rubber Bullets

De Doorns has been the center of the farmworker protests, with police firing rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse stone-throwing crowds. Police have arrested 203 people since the latest violence erupted on Jan. 9.

The Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa, which has about 10,000 members, will meet with workers in De Doorns later today to decide whether to continue striking, Nosey Pieterse, the union’s president, said by phone from Cape Town. Workers will probably settle for a minimum daily wage of 105 rand, he said.

Agriculture makes up about 2.1 percent of South Africa’s gross domestic product, government data show. Farms produce close to 6.5 percent of the country’s exports, including wine, citrus fruit, corn, grapes, apples and pears. Farming in the Western Cape employs about 200,000 workers, according to the provincial agriculture department.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Cohen in Cape Town at mcohen21@bloomberg.net;

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

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