Cape Town - Thousands of jobs could be lost as Africa’s largest canning factory, based in Ashton and owned by Tiger Brands, faces closure, leaving Western Cape fruit farmers and their workers in the lurch.
Tiger Brands said it had embarked on a consultation process with permanent and seasonal employees, in line with the Labour Relations Act, on the future of its deciduous fruit business Langeberg and Ashton Foods (LAF), a division of Tiger Consumer Brands Ltd.
Tiger Brands said an exhaustive process over the past two years to find a buyer for the LAF business had failed as interested parties had been unable to secure the required funding to meet the business’s working capital requirements and, as such, it had been left with no option but to close down.
However, it said that in a parallel process it was engaging with relevant provincial and national government departments in attempts to explore available and sustainable commercial solutions to protect the South African deciduous fruit canning industry and support the growers.
LAF produces canned fruit and fruit purees largely for export markets that include Europe, China, Australia and Japan. Provincial Labour chief inspector David Esau said the department was aware of the retrenchment process by Tiger Brands at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).
Agri SA executive director Christo Rheede said they were deeply concerned about the recent commencement of a consultation period after Tiger Brands gave notice of its intention to close down its canning factory in Ashton.
“Coming so soon after the signing of the Agriculture and Agro-Processing Master Plan, the decision will have a devastating impact on more than 4 500 workers in the sector, and on the surrounding community.”
Finance and Economic Opportunities MEC Mireille Wenger said the province was deeply concerned and that meetings were planned in the next week with Wesgro, Premier Alan Winde, herself, and senior officials and private sector parties.
“We will continue to actively engage with all parties to come to the best possible solution,” Wenger said.
Denico Dube, deputy general secretary of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), said government intervention was needed as the factory was the only source of seasonal employment in the region, with workers coming even from outside the municipality.
Trust for Community Outreach and Education director Mercia Andrews said: “If the government can bail out Eskom and other failing state-owned enterprises, surely they have the ability to bail out the canning factory.”
She said she understood the nature of the economy had changed but what was needed was for the stakeholders, including the national and provincial governments, to speak to the workers and the farmers about alternatives to the canning factory. Provincial ANC agriculture spokesperson Pat Marran said he was vehemently opposed to the decision to close the factory.
“Closure would cause a major blow and have a negative impact on the economy of Ashton as over 4500 workers would be left without jobs.”
Agriculture standing committee member Peter Marais (Freedom Front Plus) said state intervention was needed to save the affected workers and numerous fruit and vegetable farmers from financial ruin.
He urged the national agriculture minister and Premier Alan Winde to act urgently in concert with opposition parties and the relevant local government authorities to save both workers, farmers and small businesses.
African Farmers’ Association of South Africa Western Cape spokesperson Ismael Motala said he believed there was an opportunity, with government assistance, for black agricultural entrepreneurs to buy the facility not only to save jobs and the direct impact on the local economy, but also to transform an untransformed value chain.
“The opportunity is great for transformation with the understanding of the current challenges,” he said.