A distressed Western Cape farmer, Justin Mudge, fears that rural women will ultimately pay the price for the Transnet strike that has already brought South Africa’s berry industry to its knees.
With no end in sight for the labour dispute, the managing director of Chiltern Farms in Grabouw said striking port workers threaten the livelihoods of especially women who form the backbone of the agriculture sector.
“Rural women are already the most disenfranchised,” said Mudge in an interview with Food For Mzansi. “This is because of the limited employment opportunities. The strike will put these employment opportunities at risk – further limiting their chances for gainful employment.”
Mudge said typically women constitute more than 80% of the workforce employed to pick and pack blueberries. They live in rural areas and have few other alternatives for employment, especially at this time of the year.
Yesterday, the parastatal’s chief executive Portia Derby told Agri SA congress attendees that the strike was far from over. It simply could not afford to yield to worker demands. Workers earlier turned down a 4% wage rise offer as it was below the country’s annual inflation rate set on 7.6% in August.
“It is not sustainable to have about 66% of your operating cost being labour costs,” said Derby. “I know some people feel this is a strike that we should pay whatever is required. But the truth is we have a responsibility to turn around Transnet and leave a strong, sustainable company on the other side of the divide.”
Describing the country’s harbours as “some of the worst performing ports in the world” when it comes to productivity, Mudge is adamant that government has not demonstrated the ability to hold labour to account.
Urgent intervention needed
BerriesZA, the industry association, has written to both Thoko Didiza and Ebrahim Patel, respectively the ministers of agriculture, land reform and rural development, and trade and industry to request urgent intervention.
For the berry industry alone, R3 billion worth of export revenue and some 30 000 jobs are on the line. During the previous season, 15 000 tonnes of berries were exported to the European United and the United Kingdom.
“The stakes are high so the stress levels are off the charts,” added Mudge, noting that he has not had an opportunity to address the possible impact of the strike with his own workers. “It has been hectic. I try to remain positive so that we can be solution-focused.”
Agriculture is not the only sector crippled by the United National Transport Union and Satawu, the two unions orchestrating the Transnet strike. Mine exporters are estimated to lose R815 million per day because they cannot export minerals and coal.
Besides the financial losses, Mudge also pointed to reputational damaged suffered because of the strike. “Every day we do further damage to our reputation as a reliable source country for quality product.”
He believed that Transnet’s monopoly over all freight rail and port operations in Mzansi should be broken. “Can someone please explain why it is possible for Transnet to have a monopoly? Surely the same rules apply to state-owned entities. Perhaps the competition commission should investigate. The solutions is clear. South African ports need independent operators.”