Cape farm workers fight for right to strike

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Farm labourers are this week fighting their farm boss at the Labour Court to get their jobs back, after being dismissed more than a year ago.

Two of the three workers from La Maison fruit farm in Robertson, almost hours drive from Cape Town, trekked to the court in central Cape Town where the matter has been heard since Tuesday last week. The Labour Court’s Judge Anton Steenkamp is expected to conclude the matter this week.

Christian Philander (44), Adam Louw (23) Jakobus Burger (36) were dismissed on February 25 2013 for conducting an unprotected strike for a salary increase.

Farm workers Christian Philander (left) and Adam Louw want their jobs back. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Farm workers Christian Philander (left) and Adam Louw want their jobs back. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Attorney Raphael Brink, the legal representative for the workers and their union, said their aim was to “defend the right to strike, even though it was not a protected strike”.

“Their strike was for the purpose of improving wages from R69 a day to R150 a day. The government declared after that strike that farm workers should be paid R105 a day,” said Brink.

This strike was part of wider farm worker strikes for increased wages on various farms in the Western Cape.

Even though dismissed, the three La Maison workers could not be evicted from La Maison as the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) initiated a complaint against the farm owners.

This complaint was lodged with the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and the matter was then referred to the Labour Court in Loop Street, central Cape Town.

Brink explains: “They are protected under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act and cannot be evicted until the labor dispute has been settled.”

In court, lawyers for La Maison, represented by the Michael Bagraim firm, argued that CSAAWU as a “responsible union would have advised workers that what they are doing is illegal and they should not do it”.

This was in reference to the fact that workers had not taken the proper steps to launch a strike, thus an unprotected strike ensued.

The union’s assistant general secretary Karel Swart told the court they had “told the workers the strike was unprotected”.

“The strike was already happening. We had to support the workers… You need radical change on these farms,” said Swart.

Lawyers for the farm also accused the union and farm workers of taking “militant action”. They said farm owners were unable to afford salary increases.

CSAAWU has dealt with two other matters involving farm workers dismissed for participating in 2012/13 strikes that were widely reported on and that sometimes turned violent.

Philander and Louw said life has been tough for them without full time employment. Their work on La Maison entailed picking various fruits, including peaches, grapes, apricots, prunes.

Louw recalled: “When we came from the strike we were put aside from the others and we were given harder work to do.”

Philander added: “We had to do work that was not usually for us. Our hands were broken and our bodies were sore. We couldn’t work anymore. When we wanted to go to the clinic, we were told we should leave the farm if we don’t want to work.”

They faced internal disciplinary action on the farm and were fired on February 25. But they want their jobs back.

“My children are still small. One is seven, I have twins that are two and a daughter in Grade 10. I had to find part-time work on different farms after I was fired. I haven’t found a new job,” said Philander.

Louw said: “I support my mother who doesn’t work. I still live on the farm with my mother. I’m the only one at home who can work. My sister is six years old and my brother is at high school. I looked for part-time work on other farms so that I could support them.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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