Striking farm workers

After strikes in the mining industry rocked the South African economy last year — and left many mines shuttered — now South African farm workers have used work stoppages to push farm owners to pay more for the backbreaking work making the world famous South African wines.

Since November, farm workers in the $1.3 billion fruit and wine industry have been demanding pay increases and clashing with authorities, resulting in three deaths at the hands of police. But unlike the mine workers, the farm workers are not unionized, meaning workers have to negotiate individually with employers. They also are more vulnerable because most of them live on the farms and face eviction if they make demands on the farmers.

The government-mandated minimum wage is about $8 a day (69 rand). The farm workers are demanding that it be doubled to 150 rand a day. The workers are also seeking better living conditions, describing their dwellings on some farms as rat-infested hellholes, without toilets, running water or electricity.

In addition, a 2011 report by Human Rights Watch chronicled the workers’ exposure to toxic pesticides, lack of access to drinking water or sanitation, and a failure to pay sick leave. At one time the farmers used a system of payment in alcohol, but while that has largely been abolished, the Western Cape still has the highest rates in the world of fetal alcohol syndrome.

To make matters worse, there is also an element of race to the conflict — almost all of the farmers are white and the workers are black.

The unions and charities supporting the Western Cape’s 500,000 farm workers say pay and working conditions are so bad that the wine-consuming world should treat South African wines, table grapes and granny smith apples as unacceptable as they were under apartheid. “The government should be forcing the farmers to the table but it is not,” said Nosey Pieterse, secretary general of the black agricultural sector union, Bawusa. “Our only weapon left is for the foreign buyers to pledge that unless the conditions are addressed, they will no longer import South African products.”

While the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the labor group allied with the ruling African National Congress, has threatened to call for a worldwide boycott of South Africa’s fruit and wine because of “slave labor” conditions, farmers say a boycott would devastate a big chunk of the country’s farming and cause job losses at a time when nearly 40 percent of workers are already out of work.

A report in BusinessWeek also detailed another huge problem facing workers in South Africa: the growing reliance on unsecured loans. Workers have racked up huge debts that have led banks to garnish their wages — with workers in some cases paying interest rates as high as 80 percent, which is allowed in South Africa. There are 9 million South Africans mired in debt, and the problem was one of the underlying issues in the mining unrest last year.

“One of the contributing factors to all of these strikes has been this surge in unsecured lending,” says Mike Schussler, chief economist at the research group

According to estimates, at some of the mining companies up to 15 percent of workers have wages garnished.

James Ntseane, 41, a platinum miner who owes at least 30,000 rand ($3,300) to African Bank and has 13 percent of his monthly 12,600-rand ($1,400) salary garnished, doesn’t even know how much he’s paying in interest. His borrowing started when he needed money to pay for his grandmother’s funeral. Though the South African government says it will try to crack down on the unsecured loans — which jumped 39 percent in the past year — Ntseane doesn’t have much hope.

“They are taking too much money,” he told BusinessWeek.


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