Leading South African fruit packer, Ceres Fruit Growers, has called on striking workers and their trade union, Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) to reach a settlement in a wage dispute which escalated this week with damage to one of the company buildings, which was set alight by strikers.
Francois Malan, Managing Director of CFG, says the longer the impasse continues the deeper the rifts in internal relationships will become. “The longer the strike continues, the bigger the losses for all. We have to find a peaceful and positive resolution. Our door is always open for talks and for negotiations but not to criminal acts of violence and intimidation,” he says.
The latest incident in the strike was the destruction of the packing material building at Ceres Fruit Growers, which is located on the outskirts of Ceres. CFG is one of the major employers in the region.
Malan says CFG remains under siege as strike violence escalates. “The non-stakeholder involvement in wage negotiations was difficult to understand as it continues to protract the strike and scuppers discussions that threaten the livelihoods of CFG employees. A packing material building was set alight and burned down on Wednesday, 16 September 2015 at around 10:30am.”
He says the malicious violence and damage to property by strikers and their supporters at CFG has escalated to crisis proportions.
The union and its members demand a 12.5 per cent increase as well as a share in the company profits. CFG says it believes that its offer of 7.5 per cent and other increased benefits is fair, given the economic environment in South Africa and the fact it ensures a sustainable future for all.
According to Malan, an agreement that contains rules under which peaceful protest action would take place was reached on Tuesday, 15 September 2015 with the help of a commissioner from the CCMA, along with the Shop Stewards. “We all agreed that talks would continue without damage to property."
“CFG’s intent is to act in good faith as we hold the wellbeing of all of our staff among our highest goals. We have already conceded and moved our position but we cannot offer more than what is sustainable for us to do.
"The CCMA Commissioner agreed that our final offer to FAWU was fair and encouraged the Shop Stewards to promote our offer to their membership. Despite this being an illegal strike we agreed that we would not pursue the legality of it which would impact the payout of other benefits and conditions of employment. We further offered to pay the 7.5 per cent increase on the basic wage retrospectively from 1 August 2015 and additionally offered a one-off bonus,” Malan continues.
CFG says operations at the company’s premises have come to a standstill. “The strikers have not allowed the rest of the staff to load containers or trucks for clients. The company obtained an interdict on Wednesday afternoon that force FAWU and its members to comply with the picketing rules as agreed on Tuesday 15 September 2015. This interdict will help CFG to gain free access to the premises and will help with the load-out of stock.
Malan says reports of threats and intimidation against employees that are currently working and who want to work have been confirmed. “This is a very unfortunate situation as the law allows employees to decide for themselves whether they participate in strike action.”
“FAWU claimed that it was not their members that set the building alight, but CFG can confirm that two of the three CFG employees that were arrested, are fully paid members of FAWU,” he outlines.
The disruption to packing operations has impacted export plans but all exporters receiving fruit from Ceres Fruit Growers say they are doing their best to fulfill commitments.
It comes towards the end of the export season, but is damaging to the Ceres region which is recovering from last year’s poor campaign as a result of hail damage to crops. This reduced CFG volumes by 40 per cent last year, and observers say the company did extremely to increase its staff salaries by 7 per cent and award pay bonuses in 2014, despite that poor season.
Other packhouses and farming operations are holding their breath and hoping that the troubles at CFG will not be the start of a season of industrial discontent and strikes.