Farmworkers tell of poor working and living conditions

Farmworkers say that their working and living conditions have not changed since the 2012 strike. Photo by Mzi Velapi

The fact that farmworkers work the land under working and living conditions that have not changed since the Western Cape strike of 2012 should be at the centre of land reform in South Africa.

Farmworker’ organisations, labour unions and academics came to this consensus at a farmworkers’ conference that kicked off at the University of the Western Cape on Wednesday. According to Ruth Hall from the Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) based at UWC, farmworkers endure poor working and living conditions but nobody has a good idea of what to do. “Farmworkers face evictions, causualisation, but nobody has a good idea of what is to be done. Government departments work in silos and there is no overarching plan and the aim of the conference is to develop a plan,” she said.

Hall said the conference would also look at the impact technology, artificial intelligence and robots will have on agricultural labour as well as focus on young people on farms and what expropriation of land without compensation means for farmworkers.

The three-day conference is a collaboration between PLAAS, the Centre of Excellence in Food Security, the Institute for Social Development and Women on Farms. Stephen Devereux who is the co-director of the conference said that they scheduled the event to coincide with World Food Day and to highlight how it is that farmworkers lack access to food.

“Hunger is higher among farmworkers than any other group and around the world 1:4 children are malnourished. Farmers are also not paying minimum wage,” Devereux said.

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Betty Fortuin, a farmworker, told the conference delegates that there has been no change for farmworkers since the 2012 farmworkers strike. “We went on strike and we had 21 demands and they were directed at government and farmers but 7 years later we are still being evicted, casualised and we are hungry,” said Fortuin.

“Seasonal workers only work three months in a year and the rest of the year we are struggling. The World Food Day doesn’t mean anything to us. We are going to eat nice food at this conference but we know our families back home won’t eat the same food. We are not asking for luxuries, we want basic needs,” she said.

Motlanolo Lebepe from Nkuzi Development Association based in Limpopo said that farmers in the province prefer foreign nationals over locals and this causes tensions between the groups.

Upington-based Patricia Rooi, who works on a farm that sun-dries raisins, said that they work from 07h00 until 18h00. “We don’t get contracts and the vineyards do not have toilets. We have to relieve ourselves in the bushes. We have to drink from the stream as there is no drinking water. The foremen make us work fast and in the sun,” said Rooi.

Colette Solomon from Women on Farms said that they commissioned a study on labour rights violations in 2017 that revealed that women farmworkers in general are consistently underpaid and that they are not paid minimum wage. Solomon said that women seasonal farmworkers are typically underpaid. “People have to take out loans to supplement their salaries. Most of the working areas do not have toilets and when women are on their periods they have to bury the sanitary pad in the vineyard or take it home with them,” she said.

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According to Solomon, the study also revealed that women seasonal workers do not get protective clothing and are exposed to pesticides. “Protective clothing is only given to permanent workers, who are mostly male, and seasonal workers, who are mostly women, are exposed. The study also revealed that there are 67 pesticides that are banned by the European Union,” Solomon said.

Karel Swart, the national organiser for the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), said that they want the Scandinavian wine monopolies to apply real ethical standards to the industry and to force farmers to improve working and living conditions of farmworkers.

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