Police fire rubber bullets at striking S.Africa farm workers

AFP , Wednesday 9 Jan 2013

Demonstration by thousands of striking South African farm workers in the Western Cape region turns violent; police use rubber bullets and teargas to disperse protesters

South African police on Wednesday fired rubber bullets and teargas to disperse striking farm workers in the wine-producing Western Cape region who are demanding their daily wages be doubled.

Police moved to break up a gathering of around 3,500 people which turned violent in De Doorns, outside Cape Town, an AFP correspondent reported.

The unrest flared up across the province Wednesday raising fears of a repeat of unrest in November that left two dead and destroyed vineyards.

"So far a total of 44 people have been arrested on charges of intimidation and public violence," police spokesman Andre Traut said, adding that a police captain had been injured.

A car transporting reporters was targeted by the crowd which pelted it with rocks, smashing the windows and forcing its occupants to flee. The car was later torched.

The industrial action follows work stoppages in the mining industry that turned violent late last year leaving more than 50 people dead. Of those killed, 34 were shot dead by police in one day in scenes reminiscent of apartheid police brutality.

Workers who pick and pack fruit on farms in Western Cape have downed tools, demanding a wage hike from 69 rand ($8) to 150 rand ($17.50) a day.

Talks between the unions and employers to avert a strike broke down earlier this week.

The protesters have also occupied part of the country's major N1 highway, strewing it with rocks and boulders and clashing with police.

Meanwhile local radio reported that protesters in Grabouw, around an hour's drive from De Doorns, threw rocks and looted shops.

In Wolseley, 60 kilometres (37 miles) from De Doorns, police also kept protesters from entering the town.

Some protesters carried signs that read "Agri SA julle is apartheid boere", slamming the main trade agriculture body as being farmers of apartheid, and "150.00" to push for wage demands.

About 40 percent of labourers in the area went to work, said James Cornelius, the regional secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa (Bawusa), deploring the low turnout for the strike.

"There will be less people going to work tomorrow (Thursday)," he vowed.

Wage negotiations have been complicated because few farm workers are unionised, and talks between individual farms and employees collapsed.

Farmers worry the violence will damage production of especially table grapes and stone fruit, though the potential effect on the wine industry is still uncertain.

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant said earlier legislation dictates the basic wage may only be reviewed one year after it was put in place. The current level dates to March last year, meaning the next review can only be two months from now.

But Cornelius vowed stoppages would continue until farmers bow to their wage demands.

"I think they don't have a choice because we will strike until we get the 150", he said, adding that organisers would evaluate their action on Sunday.

Two people died during last year's unrest which started in De Doorns. Damage amounted to between 120 and 150 million rand.

The province provides 55-60 percent of the country's agricultural exports and employs nearly 200,000 permanent and seasonal workers.

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