One person died and three others were injured, two of them seriously, when violent clashes broke out on Monday at the Mafambisse sugar plantation, in the central Mozambican province of Sofala, after about 4,000 seasonal workers went on strike.
The strike began early on Monday morning, when a group of workers demanded a wage rise, overtime pay and a reduction in what they considered the excessive work load demanded of them by the company. The strikers gathered at the entrance of the factory before dawn, at about 04.00. Some of the demonstrators told reporters from the Maputo daily "Noticias" that they had not attempted to interfere in the operations of the sugar mill.
The workers said that the company's security guards opened fire on them with rubber bullets, in an attempt to disperse the crowd. They accused the head of the company security force, Cardoso Equivale, of firing the pistol shot that took the life of 23 year old Domingos Chanjane.
With three other workers injured by the security guards, the demonstrators, brandishing machetes, retaliated. They destroyed a motorbike belonging to a company official, who fled from the scene. The police were called, and eventually managed to calm down the angry strikers, who then went into a meeting with the company management, the Mafambisse trade union committee, and the Sofala provincial director of labour, Omar Julilo.
The strike had not been called by the trade union committee, but was a spontaneous outburst of anger against what the workers regarded as the company reneging on its promises to increase their pay. Strikers told reporters that the company had promised to pay the seasonal cane cutters 100 meticais [~£2] an hour as from May. But this agreement was not implemented, and the workers continued to earn just 60 meticais [~£1.20] an hour.
The cane cutters are the best paid of the Mafambisse agricultural workers. The workers said that for other plantation sectors the company had promised to pay 95 and 85 meticais a day - but was still only paying 62 and 44 meticais.
The workers claim that the company obliges them to work at weekends, yet only gives them 26 days wages a month, rather than 30 or 31. They also said they worked 14 hours a day, rather than eight hours fixed as the normal working day in Mozambican labour legislation, and that the company did not pay them overtime.
Attempts to negotiate these issues had met with failure - thence the option for a wildcat strike. The main shareholder in the Mafambisse company is the South African Tongaat-Hulett Group, which holds 75 per cent of the shares. Tongaat Hulett is not exactly poor: its net profits in 2006 were 724 million rand [~£52 million].
Those Mafambisse workers paid 44 meticais a day for 26 days are earning just 1,144 meticais [~£22] a month. But this is marginally higher than the current statutory minimum wage for agriculture of 1,126 meticais a month. But if the workers claims about overtime are true, then Tongatt-Hulett is in gross breach of the country's labour laws. First, because overtime, except under exceptional circumstances, should not be more than four hours a day, and then only if the working week does not exceed 56 hours. And second because overtime should be paid at 50 per cent more than the normal wage during the day, and 100 per cent more after 20.00 at night.