A wage strike in South Africa's sugar industry has brought production to a standstill for the first time since 1997.

Over 5,500 workers from three unions "embarked on a protected strike" on Tuesday following a breakdown in discussions, producer Tongaat Hulett said in a statement.

The strike is indefinite, there are no timelines. It depends on the assessment by the members of the union who are on strike, so I cannot say it will end in a week or in a year. It also depends on whether the employers will come back to the negotiation table and try and meet us halfway.

Katishi Masemola, FAWU Gen Sec.

"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.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Katishi Masemola, FAWU's general secretary, said the union had not given employers a deadline.

"We will write them a letter later today and ask them to come to the negotiation table." he said.

They are demanding a 10.5 percent wage increase, a 40-hour workweek, benefits and permanent employment for contract workers, according to FAWU.

Tongaat Hulett has 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.

It is also the first time the industry has come to a standstill in 17 years. In 1997, the strike lasted 10 days.

Meanwhile official data showed Tuesday the country's economy shrunk by 0.6 percent in the first quarter of the year. The fall in productivity was largely due to a huge loss of output in the mining industry, which decreased by almost 25%. 

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies