South Africa: Farm Workers Strike

31 May 2018
opinion

Leaving wage and expropriation of farms where workers are abused should be an answer to farm workers plight.

On 30 and 31 May 2018, we witness a near complete shutdown of farming operations in citrus production area of the Sundays Rive Valley municipality, Eastern Cape, South Africa, as workers went on strike. On 31 May 2018, approximately 10 000 farm workers across the Sundays River Valley municipality participated in a peaceful march. The marchers handed a memorandum of demands to the leadership of the industry at the Sundays River Citrus Company pack house in Addo. The key demand is for a wage increase of 13 percent whilst the management offers eight percent increase. Workers who are members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and supported by the South African National Civic organisation started the strike.

In response to the memorandum of demands, the industry representatives said that since the strike affected many farms, they would be engaging with the producers association, namely the citrus growers association and will be reporting back to workers on Monday, 4 June 2018.

This is how Zwelinzima Vavi articulates the conditions of farm workers:

"Farm workers are routinely beaten up, 'mistaken for baboons', shot at in cold blood, evicted and dismissed without a hearing, made to work long hours without compensation, made to work daily including Sundays and public holidays, etc. At times farm owners are so powerful and farm workers so powerless that even when they report murders, beatings and rape at the hands of their bosses they find the very perpetrators manning police stations as police reservists and who beat them even more for daring to report them. The Department of Labour inspectors at times are so easily bribed to look on the other side in the face of these abuses". South African Federation of Trade Unions General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, was addressing the Congress of the Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers' Union on 24 November 2017.

In the Sundays River Valley, farm workers are given alternative public holidays and thus unable to participate in social and political activities associated with public holidays; in some of the farms there is no sanitation and access to clean running water and many provisions as contained in the basic conditions of employment act such as threshold in deductions are undermined. Workers are also underpaid and overworked.

What are some of the underlying tensions in the farming industry? The farming industry was built at the back of ultra- exploitation of black workers during the colonial and apartheid era. Linked to this [ultra -exploitation] has been racism against black workers, which they have to contend with. To date, under democratic government, these features of the industry, namely ultra exploitation of black workers and racism have not been dealt with.

Whilst the government continues to champion the interest of farmers through the pursuit of favourable bilateral and multilateral agreements with foreign governments, the government has been soft in dealing with matters affecting workers in the industry. These include for example enforcement of labour legislation, stopping farm evictions, abuse of workers, etc. The proposed R2 (about US $ 0.16) increase [per hour] for farm workers as contained in the minimum wage agreement is a typical example of how government is biased towards the industry. And secondly, an absence of organised militant trade labour to represent workers is also a contributing factor. Despite the progressive legislation, which outlawed various anti-workers laws in favour of conducive conditions for rights of workers, trade union representatives among farm workers in the Western Cape is reported to be between three and five percent, compared to South Africa's overall unionisation rate of 30 percent [Human Rights Watch, 2011]. The unionisation rate on farm workers is far less.

The industry is taking advantaged of a "reserve army of labourers", as it draws labour from as far as Lesotho, Mozambique and surrounding towns of the Eastern Cape and in Free State. Migrant workers complicate the situation for local workers, as they do not have back up support in a foreign terrain.

Just like the rest of the country, farm owners in the Sundays River Valley are making millions of rands in the so-called black empowerment programme on farms, also known as farm equity schemes. Although workers are purported to be shareholders, they do not participate in the management and running of these farming enterprises. There is no financial transparency in these programmes and workers' socio-economic conditions have not yet improved despite the fact that these were their intended objectives. In short, workers are not benefiting from these schemes.

A living wage, not a minimum wage must be implemented in the farming industry and farms where workers are abused and labour laws violated must be targeted for expropriation without compensation and workers should be in control of expropriated farms.

* Simphiwe Dada writes from Eastern Cape, South Africa

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