“We can’t force the industry not to use machines”

A new sectoral determination for farm workers, including a new minimum wage, can only be implemented in April next year, labour minister Mildred Oliphant said this afternoon. This, coupled with increased mechanisation on farms is likely to create continued tension between employers and their employees in the coming months.

Briefing journalists on the developments of negotiations between farm workers and employers for a new minimum wage, Oliphant emphasised government will not meet the deadline of 4 December set by unions and striking farm workers.

Earlier this month, several farms in the De Doorns district and surrounds in the Western Cape were plagued by violence when vineyards were set alight by striking farm workers and residents in the area. An estimated R400m is lost in production, workers’ wages and damage to farms and equipment, The New Age said. Farm workers and unions earlier agreed to suspend the strike and protest action on condition that the current minimum wage of R70 per day be upped to R150.

They threatened to resume the strike and extend it nationally if the deadline of 4 December isn't met.

“We can’t go beyond the laws we have,” Oliphant said. “The Basic Conditions of Employment Act stipulates very clearly that the sectoral determination can only be reviewed after 12 months.”

Oliphant’s utterances contradict an undertaking by Tina Joemat-Pettersson, minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, to Cosatu and other trade unions when she promised the minimum wage for agriculture would be increased as soon as the legalities have been completed.

When asked about this inconsistency, Oliphant responded, “I don’t know why the minister (Joemat-Pettersson) made the statement. She probably didn’t understand the [legal] processes involved.”

Oliphant also took a swipe at labour unions which participated in the determination of a minimum wage for farm workers earlier in March this year. The department of labour only implements the recommendations (including the minimum wage) of the Employment Conditions Commission which is represented by organised labour, Oliphant explained. “It surprised me to hear from Fedhusa and Cosatu that I must change the sector determination because they were part and parcel of the those recommendations.”

Oliphant admitted she was concerned about potential job losses in the agricultural sector as a number of farmers contemplate mechanising their practices to be less dependent on labour. “Yes, I am worried. Sometimes you’ll find employers say we can’t afford to pay any more for the workers and therefore they retrench them”, she said. “But we can’t force the industry not to use machines on their farms. We can encourage them to rather use labour-intensive farming practices.”

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