Mercia Andrews of the Southern African Rural Women's Assembly Update on the Farm worker Strike (week ending 18- 25 January 2013)
(Please note this is mainly an internal update to keep everyone in the organisation informed and involved in the solidarity work).
This report started Friday (18th Jan) when the Coalition for Farm workers Solidarity met in Worcester to review the events and processes of the week.
Impact of the Strike:
1) The media has been rather silent on the impact of strike until this week when Cape Times reporter Ann Crotty reported in the Business Times of 25/1/ 2013 that South African Table Grapes Industry showed that the intake of grapes was down by about 50% on last years figures. However, the report also said farmers said they could still “catch up” if strike was called off. It would be important to gather the reports and forecasts from the other industries as well.
Throughout these three months of protests and strikes, commercial farmers have remained intransigent and have refused to engage with the unions and farm workers committees. Instead and unions report no shift and no change in the attitude of AGRI-SA or other organisations representing commercial agriculture. This is an indication of the power relations and lack of transformation in the countryside. Foe many farmers “apartheid is alive”.
The role of the police has again come under public scrutiny. All areas report cases of extreme police repression, provocation and open support for commercial farmers as oppose to defending farm workers and the rural poor against abuse, intimidation and threats from farmers.
The strike and popular support
2) The reports reflected that there was great unevenness in what was happening in towns and on the farms. All organisations, unions and representatives from farm worker committees present reported that there were on-going meetings, report backs in the areas. But the foci of the strike were narrowing to only a few towns.. In many towns such as DeDoorns, Robertson district, Wolseley and Ceres. it appeared that farm workers were returning to farms.
DeDoorns showed great fighting spirit and mobilisation. DeDoorns saw a week of intense protests and stay -away which ended on Thursday (17th Jan) with a peace march that was supported by over 6 000 farm workers and the community.
Nqukebela organised a protest that blockaded the R60 route in to Robertson, Bonnievale and Ashton. Seasonal workers, farm workers and contract workers from 34 farms in the area supported the mobilisation. Farm workers demanded to meet the farmers to discuss wages as well living and working conditions. Instead, like DeDoorns the protest was criminalised and over 16 farm workers were shot with rubber bullets. These farm workers decided to elect a committee including CSAAWU, TCOE and Mawubuye to draft a letter with their demands and deliver the letters to the 34 farms.
In Wolseley several hundreds of seasonal and farm workers organised a mass meeting where they decided to march to the farms and deliver letters demanding that the farms meet with them to discuss their demands.
Dismissals, evictions and disciplinary actions:
3) Reports from all organisations suggest that the number of farm workers dismissed or facing disciplinary action and evictions are very high. One farm in De Doorns reported 80 dismissals. The Coalition decided it would gather information to develop a strategy to deal with the dismissals given that the issue of no dismissals and retrenchments were part of the demands of the strike.
There were two farms where farm workers in Robertson area (Vink River) reported that they were unlocked out of the farm by the farmer. Several unions reported on Draft interdicts against them.
Strikes were also organised in Kannaland district (Ladismith, Zoar etc). Here farm workers were came to the briefing meetings in large numbers and spoke about the very poor conditions on farms as well as the low pay.
Court cases and imprisonment:
4) There were over 200 farm workers, leaders of popular organisations such as Mawubuye and the Food Sovereignty Campaign and NGO staff that have been arrested over the past three months. Presently several are still in jail since the 9th January, including two young mothers. Many have been refused bail. Legal costs are mounting and organisations are struggling to support families to visit those in prison.
TCOE and SPP have managed to get support from the Advocates for Transformation. Already a number of meetings have taken place to develop a concrete strategy.
Henry Michaels, the Mawubuye Chairperson, remains in prison.
5) New actions:
Organisations have invited the SA Human Rights Commission as well as the Commission for Gender Equality to visit the farms and see how farm workers live.
Organisations have also invited the media and Health professionals and their organisations to speak to farm worker committees, to document police violence and document living and working conditions.
Farm worker committees report that the strike is beginning to bite as workers have no money, no food and given that schools have reopened pressure to buy school shoes and transport etc. At present organisations are trying to find ways to lobby for food parcels etc. This has been slow.
Another key challenge is the growing use of migrant labour from Zimbabwe, Lesotho as well as nearby towns not involved in the strike.
Intimidation and threats of evictions by the farmers have become real in several towns. Lastly, political pressure to suspend the strike is also growing and creating renewed tensions.
6) Plan of action in the coming month:
· Organising meetings with migrant worker committees to discuss scab labour and strategies to ensure there is no xenophobia.
· Meeting with religious leaders to invite them to visit farms see the living and working conditions.
· Arrange for farm worker leaders to meet the government portfolio committee on labour
· Organise farm workers consultations to agree on way forward
· Popularise the list of demands of farmworkers which include access to land and food sovereignty
· Meet urban organisations to call for solidarity actions
· Work with the labour movement to call for international solidarity.
It is clear that the strike is not over. The strategy has changed.
25th January 2013.