Workers at the Robertson Winery have returned to work this week with greater security. After 14 weeks of downed tools at the winery, they have won a backdated increase of 8% or R400 (whichever is greater) to their R29,00 - R3,500 salaries, an annual bonus worth a month's salary in time for the festive season, and are apparently free from the threat of any disciplinary action. Last Wednesday brought to an end the committed and punishing industrial action, led by the workers and their union CSAAWU. The strike is poised to radically change the relationships between farm owners and workers on the Cape wine lands. These gains may well be compromised, however, if the current lacunae in middle class and mainstream media attention with regard to the plight of farmworkers persists.
In a region where huge distances between farms debilitates many efforts to organise, and an industry notorious for its anti-union clampdowns and wages and working conditions, which workers have characterised as slave-like, CSAAWU's victory is nothing short of ground-breaking. That the Robertson workers achieved it without the cushion of a strike fund is reminder that the union operates without the clout and resources of its affiliated peers. It has given assurance that it will continue to bring its "militant class struggle" to the doorsteps of South Africa's wine producers.
But victories have been won before. The passing of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) in 1997, which guaranteed stronger occupation rights to workers living on farms, was one. The militant farm worker revolt in 2012 in and around De Doorns, which succeeded in a 50% increase in the minimum wage, was another.
The role of supermarkets, whose price-cutting drives wages down, in perpetuating the working conditions on Western Cape farms will also need to be seriously interrogated.
Yet the unintended consequences of both of these, which have received little media attention, have been chilling. Producers closed ranks, and in an industry where work is increasingly casualised, found novel ways to underpay or unfairly evict and retrench workers. Neither ESTA nor the increase in the minimum wage due to farmworkers has translated into sustainable improvements in their lives.
So while another battle has been won, it must be remembered that the struggle will be long and exacting, and will be fought on multiple fronts if there is to be any chance of meaningful success. In the long-term, large landholdings will need to be broken apart and redistributed to the people who work them and the state. Liberalisation and de-regulation at the macro-economic level, which are the chief culprits of retrenchments on the ground, will have to be abandoned.
The role of supermarkets, whose price-cutting drives wages down, in perpetuating the working conditions on Western Cape farms will also need to be seriously interrogated. In the short-term, farm owners and managers must be held to account for unfair labour and housing practices, which have in recent years been repeatedly making their way to the Constitutional Court. One such case is that of Mrs Klaase, whose eviction was recently overturned by the Court. That judgment recognised the ESTA rights of spouses, whose rights of occupation are commonly conflated with those of their working husbands, and are regularly evicted from farms unfairly as a result.
The mainstream media must play its part. Among the worst living conditions and human rights abuses in South Africa go by largely unnoticed and unchecked.
CSAAWU has directed some of its limited resources to these fronts as well, and will demand later this week that the Robertson Abattoir – not to be confused with Robertson Winery – explain to the Labour Court why it dismissed 39 workers for protesting their working conditions, which CSAAWU argues grossly contravened their contracts and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, and included 18-hour work days for R80 pay.
A hefty responsibility in CSAAWU's growing struggle, especially in the short term, lies with the media and middle-class solidarity, which have largely been reticent when compared to the international community. Solidarity from workers, activists and consumers in Sweden, for instance, resulted in a campaign to monitor and improve the working and living conditions of workers producing the wine sold in that country. The pressures that have risen in the wake of the revelations of a recent documentary, Bitter Grapes, eventually resulted in Danish supermarkets taking Robertson wine off of their shelves. These kinds of consumer pressure and solidarity are crucial to amplifying the voices of organised workers. If they are to succeed in their struggle for dignified lives, the support shown by the international community for farm workers' struggles must be reflected and intensified in South Africa.
The mainstream media must play its part. Among the worst living conditions and human rights abuses in South Africa go by largely unnoticed and unchecked. The aftermath of the strike at Robertson Winery is uncertain territory. Buried in the unprecedented success of the workers and CSAAWU are the seeds of further exploitation. Just as they did in the wake of ESTA and the De Doorns strikes, farm owners may lash out in response to CSAAWU's victories, and in the quiet on farms left unseen by an unobservant media, workers will bear the brunt.
The media can play a crucial role in consolidating the gains of workers by ensuring that any disciplinary action taken against workers in the wake of the strike are publicly exposed, and by shining a more relentless light on the unfair treatment of farm workers more generally. This will go some way to fostering support and solidarity.
If the centuries-long cycle of oppression on Western Cape farms is to be ended, the South African media and middle classes cannot allow a retaliation of the kind experienced before by farmworkers. Farm owners must be held to account.