South African Police Arrest 20 as Farmworkers Resume StrikeTshepiso Mokhema and Mike Cohen
South African police arrested 20 people as farmworkers resumed a strike after failing to reach agreement with employers over boosting minimum wages.
“Seven suspects were arrested in the Tulbach area and 13 in the Ashton area on charges of intimidation related to the farmworkers’ strike,” Andre Traut, a police spokesman in the Western Cape Province, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “They will make a court appearance once they have been charged.”
Thousands of agricultural employees in the Western Cape, South Africa’s biggest table grape-growing region, went on strike in November to demand that the minimum wage be increased to 150 rand ($17) a day from 70 rand. Two people died, and protesters burned vineyards and sheds, causing damage estimated at 120 million rand by AgriSA, the main farmers’ organization.
Unions and workers suspended their labor action on Dec. 5, to allow new minimum wages to be negotiated on a farm-by-farm basis. The strike was resumed after farmers failed to meet employee demands.
“There has a been a very good response,” to the renewed strike call, despite high levels of intimidation of workers by police and farmers, Nosey Pieterse, president of the Black Association of the Agriculture Sector union, said in a phone interview while en route to address workers in De Doorns, about 150 kilometers (94 miles) northeast of Cape Town.
While as many as 300 attended protests in the towns of Somerset West and Tulbach, there were no immediate reports of unrest, Traut said.
The government says it can only legislate new minimum pay from April when the prevailing rates will have been in place for 12 months. AgriSA says it doesn’t have a mandate from its members to negotiate wages.
“Our request goes out to government and AgriSA to please come to the table,” Fambile Keni, provincial organizer for the Food and Allied Workers Union, said by phone from the town of Robertson. “We need a solution. We cannot keep having these strikes.”
The harvest season for table grapes in the Western Cape got under way this month. South Africa is the continent’s biggest exporter of the fruit.
“Continuing with the strike is a very irresponsible thing” to do, Porchia Adams, a spokeswoman for Agri Wes-Cape, a farmers’ group, said in a phone interview. “Workers will suffer. It’s simple: no work, no pay. They can strike, they are allowed to, but there will be consequences.”