Over R70 million in damages to farms, infrastructure and pack houses, and export fruit worth R100 million. These are the losses that citrus-producing farmers in the Sundays River Valley have suffered in recent violent protests.
Last week, protesters supported by the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) staged a shutdown of the municipal area. They claimed that some farmers were favouring the contracting of workers from foreign countries, to pick citrus fruit at a wage as low as R10 an hour.
The protesters demanded that workers’ remuneration be increased from the legislated minimum wage of R23.19 to R30.00 per hour. Their list of demands also included a 70%-30% allocation of jobs between local and migrant workers, as well as promotions and a provident fund for farmworkers.
A court interdict to keep protesters from setting foot onto some farms could not prevent extensive damage to property, or the death of at least one person. Indications are that violence has quieted down but that talks are not fully concluded yet.
Justin Chadwick, CEO of the Citrus Growers’ Association told Food For Mzansi that the parties agreed to a two week period protest halt, after which the different concerns raised by both parties must be addressed and reported back on.
‘Farmers under immense pressure’
According to Dr Hennie Ehlers, chairman of the Sundays River Valley Citrus Producers Forum (SRVCPF), the violence and destruction of property will have a major impact on economic development and opportunities for all.
“The damages incurred have been particularly devastating given that, over the past number of years, relationships between the community, employers and employees in the valley have been harmonious.”
Ehlers says this was possible thanks to the establishment of a collaborative initiative in 2018, which had created a “safe space” in which social issues could be addressed lawfully and procedurally. It had been agreed then that any disputes would follow recognised labour dispute resolution channels.
About wage negotiations, he adds, “All citrus industry employers are bound to pay minimum wage. Despite the gazetted minimum, employers, independently and separately, and their employees agree on wages in the workplace and any disputes are referred to the CCMA.”
Ehlers believes the current wave of violent and destructive protest action will now have a compounding effect on the sustainability of citrus farms in the region. He says these farms are already under immense financial pressure due to rising inputs costs such as electricity, fertiliser and soaring freight rates, which are aggravated by the inefficiency of South Africa’s ports, global supply chain crises and the war in Ukraine.
“It is possible that a high percentage of growers may not survive in the future and will certainly not be profitable in 2022. This bears a significant impact on local communities, given that our citrus growers are the largest employers in the region.
No wage increase on the cards
Ehlers also says it is unfortunate that many employees who wish to return to work are being intimidated by factions of protesters. “[This] is placing the entire local citrus sector at risk and the thousands of livelihoods it supports.”
Members of the local citrus growers’ forum say that, due to ongoing financial pressure, they will not be able to increase wages. They remain, however, committed to paying the legislated minimum wage of R23.19, says Ehlers.
“It is also worth noting that the vast majority of employees earn in excess of the minimum wage, due to a range of other incentives that have been introduced by farmers in the area,” he adds.
The way forward
While it is unclear what the protesting farmworkers’ and their supporters’ next move will be, the growers’ forum says its members remain available to meet and discuss realistic requests regarding upliftment and the improvement of conditions for the community members of the Sundays River Valley.
“Regarding the allegations of unlawful or unfair conduct being committed by growers against their employees, the SRVCPF will appoint an independent specialist in the field of labour law, or other recognised independent forum, to investigate the allegations and to provide a report on its findings,” Ehlers says.
Representatives of the employees and community, as well as the forum, will be afforded an opportunity to make representations to the specialist. The SRVCPF says it will also involve the department of employment and labour to intervene where farmers do not adhere to legislation on human rights, employment or the minimum wage.
Sign up for Mzansi Today: Your daily take on the news and happenings from the agriculture value chain.