The Cape's farmworkers exploited?

Linda Daniels

Farmworkers Protesting in the Western Cape

The Cape Winelands have recently been turned into a battle zone as farmworkers protested their daily wages of R69.40. Hectares of vineyards were torched, two were killed, and many more were injured.

Why now, and how did this come about?

According to the civil societies serving the agricultural sector, farmworkers are especially vulnerable in comparison to other sectors. This workforce has not been successfully mobilised into mass union membership and as a consequence, workers may be more prone to workplace abuse.  According to Sharron Marco-Thyse from the Centre for Rural Legal Studies farmworkers, “do not feel empowered to act on these rights, more especially if they are working on farms in deep rural areas”.

Farmworkers currently earn R69.40 per day, but are protesting for their daily wage to be increased to R150. However, Sara Claasen, the president of Sikhulu Sonke, a union for women farmworkers said that “the agreed wage rate is often undercut by exploitative farmers. Farmers also stand accused of making use of casual labourers and the picture of permanent farmworkers is fast disappearing into the competitive fog of job scarcity, which is exacerbated by the fact that much of the labour intensive work carried out by farmworkers is seasonal”.

Marco-Thyse also pointed out that overstretched labour inspectors hardly serve as an adequate and effective oversight mechanism to ensure the labour laws are upheld on farms.

Meanwhile, farmers are counting their losses due the violent nature of the strike which included orchards being set on fire and farming equipment being damaged.

Chairman of AgriSA’s labour and social affairs policy committee, Anton Rabe, says the farming community has never denied that there are challenges to be addressed in the industry. He also adds the minimum wage is not set by the farmers but by the Economic Conditions Commission.

Rabe's not able to quantify the cost of the farmworkers’ protest action but says the current instability in the sector means the image of the sector as a reliable supplier, has been damaged.

The Coalition of Farm Worker Representatives has given the government until 4 December 2012 to uphold its demand for a wage increase to R150 a day.

In the meanwhile, the police are closely monitoring farms in the Western Cape.

How significant is the agricultural sector?

Western Cape agriculture covers an area of 9.8m hectares or 16% of commercial farming land in South Africa. Agriculture is a major economic contributor to the Western Cape economy and it contributes almost 23% to the overall value added by the agricultural sector in SA, according to Mike Murray, author of Key trends in the agricultural economy of the Cape Winelands District Municipality: Implications for farm workers and dwellers.

According to this paper, “the main industries in the sector include fruit which contributes about R2.4bn” and “vegetables worth R1.4bn”. “The agricultural sector is critical for the Western Cape economy, accounting for 60% of regional exports.” “Western Cape agriculture is relatively more labour intensive than agriculture in the rest of the country and the industry is a significant employer. Wesgro has calculated that a 5% growth in the value of its exports could create almost 23 000 jobs (41% of these would be in primary agriculture and the balance in related upstream economic activities).”

What was the catalyst for the protests?

Fruit and wine farmers have over the years been subject to criticism due to reported abuse and exploitation of workers. Local NGO’s have repeatedly sounded the alarm over human rights abuses on farms. The more recent salvo against the industry was fired by the Human Rights Watch, which in its report, Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries, documented conditions that included “on-site housing that was unfit for living, exposure to pesticides without proper safety equipment, a lack of access to toilets or drinking water while working, and efforts to block workers from forming unions”.

CEO of Wines of South Africa (WOSA), Su Birch, spoke out at the time of the report’s release, saying that “the 96-page report, purporting to accurately document conditions on farms, had used a questionable basis for the selection of many of the respondents interviewed in the study, while interviews with workers had not been independently verified and nor had employer reaction to allegations been sought”, according to the WOSA website.

Apart from reports of human rights abuses, farmworkers are being squeezed by other factors too.

A parcel of legislation was passed, providing for a widespread range of labour, social and land rights, ranging from basic conditions of employment for a wider range of workers in 1993 to the promulgation of minimum wages in 2003.

In turn, farmers have responded to legislative and economic changes through some re-structuring of their businesses.

According to a paper by Rick Satge, this played part in “the apparent increasing utilisation of casual labour runs parallel to the rising introduction of mechanical grape harvesters and other capital substitution measures. Grape harvesters represent important advantages for farmers. Not only do they represent a significant reduction in labour costs – one machine may replace as many as 70 workers per 12 hour shift, but they also offer important quality advantages, enabling farmers to harvest quickly when sugar levels are right, or at night to make sure grapes are cool”.

“In 1995 a total of 95 machines were recorded for the whole industry. A year later this figure already stood at 144 – an increase of 52%. In the 1997 survey of 104 farms, 36% of producers made use of mechanical harvesters (Ewert et al. 1998)”.

“A VinPro spokesperson recently estimated that as many as 50% of growers made use of mechanical harvesters.”

“A further measure farmers have resorted to is to make greater use of casual or seasonal labour. It is difficult to project future trends in this regard, as it would appear that this switch has already been largely made” Satge’s paper found.

Farmworkers graphic