South Africa: Farmworker Faces Eviction After Being Fired

analysis

Endulini citrus farm in the Eastern Cape is unwilling to hear the situation of some of its workers regarding adequate accommodation.

Almost all the homes of farm workers at the Endulini farm in Patensie are freshly painted and fitted with new doors and solar-powered heaters. All but one.

In contrast to the nearby homes of her fellow workers, 62-year-old Thandeka Kortjan's has cracked walls, gaps in the ceiling, exposed bricks and wiring, and wooden planks instead of windows.

Weeping and coughing as she speaks, Kortjan says she lived in the house for 18 years until 2017, when she was asked to retire. Her job on the farm, which is in the Addo region of the Sundays River Valley, was to sort oranges and lemons.

"They told me I'm too old to work and I can stay at home," she says. "I'm sleeping here, but look at the big cracks in my wall."

When she asked the farm management why her house had not been renovated recently like the others, Kortjan was told "this house is correct for you".

Dismissed, evicted

Kortjan's neighbour is another former farm worker, Wayne Piedt, 29, whose house has been renovated although he may not be able to live in it for much longer. He came to Endulini five years ago from Oudtshoorn, 390km away, to take up a job as a chemical mixer and forklift driver. But he was fired in October this year.

Piedt was dismissed for being intoxicated at work. He says he drank several beers one night and when he went to work the next morning, he was given a breathalyser test. It was his first disciplinary offence in the five years he had been employed there, Piedt says.

After a disciplinary hearing chaired by a labour consultant, who Piedt refers to as "the lawyer", he was fired. He now faces eviction and was told to leave his house by 6 December, which he has not done.

The eviction notice has left his partner, Priscilla Dayi, 45, and her two children, in a predicament. Dayi, also a farmworker, met Piedt on Endulini farm. At the time, Dayi had her own house. She says that when it became known by the farm's management that she was in a relationship with Piedt, she was asked to move in with Piedt while her own house was being renovated. But now, says Dayi, her former house has been allocated to another farm worker and she does not know where she will live if Piedt is evicted.

"I stayed in that house from 2009," Dayi explains. "The farmer said I can move out for the renovation, but then in October when the renovation was complete, they changed the locks. Piedt asked them what they were doing and a white guy said that house is none of my business. Maybe now I am supposed to stay in the road?"

"I'm not feeling nice about this situation and when my husband is evicted, where will I stay? I feel very bad, too bad," Dayi says, bursting into tears.

Piedt adds: "It is very bad because I was a hard worker in season. Even my manager says he feels sorry now that he called the lawyer, and [that] he just wanted to frighten me. But the big bosses in Patensie told him to stick to his decision. They said if someone gets dismissed, they can't come back."

January arbitration

Piedt filed a case of unfair dismissal with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), which was set down for 9 December but postponed to the end of January for arbitration. Piedt has been told he will be evicted from the farm because he no longer works there, but cannot afford to travel to Oudtshoorn and then back again next year for the arbitration. He says he doesn't have a copy of his employment contract, which is allegedly held at the head office in Patensie, despite being legally entitled to one, so it is unclear if he has to leave the farm or just his house.

Sunday's River Valley Farm Worker's Forum co-ordinator Vuyisile Sikani said it is common for farm workers in the area to be "treated like animals ... These farms are mistreating workers without fear of the law. There are no labour inspectors so the farmers breach the labour laws. I am so disappointed because the citrus industry is a big part of the economy and this is how they are making a profit, by abusing our people."

Piedt's manager, John Steenma who declined to confirm the spelling of his name, referred New Frame to the head office of the farm's holding company, Endulini Fruits Company, in Patensie, Addo. With regard to the company wanting to evict Piedt three days before the CCMA hearing, Endulini Fruits financial director Rob Wijnants said "the fact that Mr Piedt referred a dispute to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration ... does not entitle him to remain on the premises as no employment relationship exists. We maintain that the dismissal was procedurally and substantively fair."

Wijnants declined to share the company's policy on intoxication and breathalyser tests, but said: "Piedt was dismissed for breaching well-established and communicated company rules, on 14 October 2019. Given the nature of our industry and the risks associated with intoxication offences, we have adopted a zero-tolerance approach towards any alcohol/intoxication-related offences.

"As a consequence of him committing gross misconduct and his services being terminated, we gave him notice that he should vacate the premises," added Wijnants. "He was provided with 30 days' notice to vacate the premises. Mr Piedt did not vacate the premises as instructed, and further communication followed on 26 November 2019 whereby he was given a final opportunity to vacate by no later than 6 December 2019. You will be aware that we cannot simply evict Mr Piedt but must follow a due process."

Wijnants said Dayi moved out of her house of her own accord and has not been threatened with eviction from Piedt's house.

He denied that Kortjan had retired, saying she "has always been a seasonal worker and therefore works in season as and when required". He declined to provide the company's official retirement age for farm workers.

Wijnants said he was unaware that Kortjan's house was in a derelict state. "We are not aware of any concerns regarding Ms Thandeka Kortjan's health and safety in her current accommodation as none has been reported. We, as in the past, welcome employees to share any concerns that may pose a risk to them."

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