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Thousands of South African sugar workers strike for pay

Over 5,500 workers in South Africa’s sugar industry downed tools Tuesday to demand higher wages, bringing production to a standstill, a company and a union said.

Workers from three unions “embarked on a protected strike” following a breakdown in discussions, producer Tongaat Hulett said in a statement.

“Operations at Tongaat Hulett’s South African Sugar business unit have stopped,” it added without giving numbers.

The stoppages were industry-wide and not limited to the firm, it said.

Earlier the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) said over 5,500 members of the three groups would stop work in the sugar milling and refining sectors.

They demand an 11-percent wage increase, a 40-hour workweek, benefits and permanent employment for contract workers, according to FAWU.

Tongaat Hulett offered 8.5 percent against the workers’ demands for 10.5 percent, according to Sapa news agency.

The firm produced 634,000 tonnes of sugar in the 2013-2014 season — 27 percent of South Africa’s total production.

The industrial action comes a few months shy of South Africa’s traditional “strike season” around the middle of the year, when unions down tools to bargain for higher salaries.

Meanwhile official data showed Tuesday the country’s economy shrunk by 0.6 percent in the first quarter of the year as over four months of stoppages in the platinum sector — also over pay — drag on.