By Wendell Roelf
DE DOORNS, South Africa (Reuters) - South African police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at striking farm workers who blocked a highway in the grape-growing Western Cape on Wednesday, the first clashes of a year likely to be marked by fractious labor relations.
The strikers had piled burning tires across the main highway through the town of De Doorns, 100 km (60 miles) east of Cape Town, to demand higher wages, a Reuters reporter said.
Police said they arrested 44 people and an emergency worker said four were taken to hospital with minor injuries from the rubber bullets.
The strikers set bushes on fire and torched a bulldozer and a caravan, sending smoke billowing above the picturesque valley, where fruit farm owners are bracing for more trouble.
The strike in the Western Cape, home to South Africa's multi-billion-dollar wine industry, follows a similar walk-out in December in which warehouses were set on fire and at least two workers died in clashes with police.
The workers, many of them black seasonal hires employed to pick and pack fruit on farms owned mainly by the white minority, want a minimum daily wage of 150 rand ($17.44), up from 69 rand.
"We have been met with naked racism and white arrogance," said union leader Nosey Pieterse, general secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa.
When talks to avert the strike broke down this week, union leaders blamed the intransigence of the white farmers, highlighting racial and wealth divisions that continue to rankle 18 years after the end of apartheid.
Farmers body Agri-Western Cape said it had received reports of death threats against laborers wanting to work, and blamed external agitators for the latest labor unrest to hit Africa's biggest economy.
"The intimidation is very heavy. It is not your normal farm worker. It is not your seasonal worker. It is outside people coming in to cause trouble," Chief Executive Carl Opperman said.
Tony Ehrenreich, a regional leader for the powerful COSATU trade union federation, said strikers had vowed to intensify their action on Thursday.
Striking seasonal farm worker Lena Lottering, 35, said she was struggling to survive on 69 rand a day. "There is no food on the table and my children often go to bed hungry," she said.
WAGE TALKS LOOM
The clashes suggest little let-up in a wave of labor unrest that began six months ago in the country's platinum mines and went on to sweep through the trucking and agriculture sectors.
In the worst violence since the 1994 end of apartheid, police killed 34 strikers at a Lonmin platinum mine last August, tarnishing South Africa's reputation among investors and prompting downgrades of its sovereign debt ratings.
With gold and coal mines employing more than 250,000 people due to begin industry-wide wage talks in coming months, analysts expect labor relations to cast a shadow over an economy forecast to grow by around 3 percent this year.
The government says South Africa needs annual growth of 7 percent to bring down unemployment of around 25 percent.
The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI) said labor unrest could knock slowly recovering business confidence, which rose in the last month of 2012 but was still lower than the previous year.
"The promise of improvements in confidence will only realize if the threats of continued labor protest activity ... are dealt with decisively," SACCI said. ($1 = 8.5993 South African rand) (Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Ed Copley and Tom Pfeiffer)