Eleven farmworkers appeared in the Labour Court in Cape Town on Monday morning to challenge their dismissal following a series of wage-related strikes in the Western Cape last year.

Lawyer Yvette Isaacs said it was the workers’ case that they were dismissed as a result of taking part in the strikes between December 2012 and January 2013.

Farming towns across the province came to a standstill in that period during a workers’ protest against poor wages and harsh living conditions.

Isaacs said the 11 workers arrived at the Steytler Farm in Robertson on January 8, 2013, and were locked out. They were subsequently dismissed at a disciplinary hearing.

“The issue for the court to decide, in light of all the circumstances regarding the strike and the plight for a living wage, is whether the dismissal was fair,” she said.

It was their case that their absence from work before that day was justified in light of the national strike and that their conduct during the strike did not justify dismissal.

She conceded that the strike was unprotected in terms of the Labour Relations Act.

The workers were being represented by the Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), listed as the 12th respondent.

The union previously alleged in a press statement that the employer, David Steytler, blacklisted the workers so that they could not find alternative employment.

It said workers and their families sat with the threat of eviction should the dismissal not be overturned.

Michael Crowe SC, for Steytler, said the date of the dismissal was in dispute and that workers were locked out, not dismissed, on January 8.

The dismissal was only effected at a hearing on January 21, after workers apparently ignored two ultimatums to return to work and cease strike action immediately.

Crowe argued that should the court find that the dismissal did not take place on January 8, then it could not hear the matter and the union had to pursue other avenues first.

He also put it to Judge Anton Steenkamp that the strike fell within the first year of a sectoral wage determination, and within a period when Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant announced her intention to increase the minimum wage.

“Not only was it an unprotected strike, it was a prohibited strike,” Crowe said.

“… The minister had gone to great lengths to urgently intervene in the matter… but these particular applicants were not impressed by that and persisted with their demands in terms of unlawful, unprotected strike action.”

The applicants in the matter travelled from Robertson for the hearing and arrived around 40 minutes after proceedings had started.

Outside court, around 30 other farmworkers sang protest songs. Three small children held up cardboard signs with Afrikaans slogans stating “Stop slavery on farms” and “Our kids stay hungry”.

Sapa 2 June 2014