Wage Strike Paralyzes South Africa’s Sugar Industry

Wage Strike Paralyzes South Africa’s Sugar Industry

More than 5,500 members of three South African sugar workers’ unions walked off the job Tuesday, bringing sugar production to a standstill industry-wide for the first time since 1997, AlJazeera reports.

Tongaat Hulett has operations and/or land in Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana. Its operational land footprint within the Southern African Development Community region amounts to approximately 570,000 hectares (1.408 million acres), according to its website.

The strike followed a breakdown in discussions, sugar producer Tongaat Hulett said in a statement.

Official data showed Tuesday that South Africa’s economy shrunk by 0.6 percent in the first quarter of 2014, AlJazeera reports. The drop in productivity was attributed mainly to 25-percent loss of output in the mining industry, which has also been beset by strikes.

“The (sugar workers’) strike is indefinite,” said Katishi Masemola, general secretary of the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU). “There are no timelines. I cannot say it will end in a week or in a year. It also depends on whether the employers will come back to the negotiation table and try and meet us halfway.”

In an earlier statement, the Food and Allied Workers Union said more than 5,500 members of three groups would stop work in the sugar milling and refining sectors.

Operations at Tongaat Hulett’s South African Sugar business unit have stopped, it said in a statement. The stoppages are industry-wide and not limited to the company.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Masemola said the union had not given employers a deadline.

Workers are demanding a 10.5-percent wage increase, a 40-hour work week, permanent employment for contract workers and benefits, according to the Food and Allied Workers Union.

Tongaat Hulett has offered 8.5 percent, Sapa news agency reports.

Tongaat Hulett produced 634,000 tonnes of sugar in the 2013-2014 season — 27 percent of South Africa’s total production. Its goal is to produce more than 2 million tons of raw sugar per year, according to its website.

The strike comes a few months shy of South Africa’s traditional “strike season” — around
mid-year — when unions lay down tools to bargain for higher salaries.

This is the first time in 17 years that South Africa’s sugar industry has come to a standstill. A 1997 strike lasted 10 days.