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Farm workers’ plight: Talk is cheap, Minister

By Isaac Mangena

A 2011 Human Rights Watch report revealed shocking details of human rights abuses against farm workers in the Western Cape’s fruit and wine industries, and the appalling conditions under which they work and live.

Titled Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries [PDF], it documents “conditions that include on-site housing that is unfit for living, exposure to pesticides without proper safety equipment, lack of access to toilets or drinking water while working, and efforts (by farmers) to block workers from forming unions”.

These workers lead “dismal and dangerous lives”, the report added.

It should come as no surprise then that Labour minister Mildred Oliphant was “disturbed” during an inspection of 13 farms in the Free State last week.

After discovering that farm workers were made to sleep directly on steel bed springs in a cramped compound without ventilation, she proclaimed: “A caring society cannot stand by and watch as people are treated in this fashion.”

She went on to say she will personally take it up with government and other departments to ensure that the living conditions of farm workers are improved.

But it’s highly unlikely that the minister was not aware of these appalling conditions prior to her official visit last week. Let’s remind the minister that those workers are actually considered lucky to have some kind of bed to sleep on. Others in farms in the North West and Limpopo sleep on the floor, Honourable Minister, with no blankets or even a mattress. And others, mostly illegal immigrants in farms near Musina and the Kruger National Park, are made to sleep with pigs in their stalls, or with donkeys and cows in their kraals. These testimonies are contained in the HRW 2011 report, but when I visited a farm near Venda in 2004/2005, workers there told me of similar sleeping conditions.

Let’s also remind the minister that this is not the first time that farm abuses in South Africa were reported by Human Rights Watch. The problems that farm workers and farm dwellers face are not unknown to the South African government, Honourable Minister. Nor are they unknown to the farmers (not like they care), or to retailers such as Pick ‘n Pay, Woolworths and Checkers who purchase products made from these abused farm workers’ hard labour. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) reported on similar abuses in 2003, and again in 2008.

“Although legal protection has been extended to farm workers’ labour rights, the Commission found that generally, there is widespread non-compliance with labour law,” the World Socialist website observed after the 2003 SAHRC report.

“Extremely low wages, long hours, dangerous working conditions, victimisation of trade-union members, child labour practices, use of the tot system (whereby workers are given alcohol as a component of their wages) and the use of illegal immigrants” were amongst the violations found by the SAHRC in 2003.

These violations are still contained in the 2011 HRW report and I am sure that the minister, if she didn’t see them firsthand in the Free State, will not miss them if she visits farms in other provinces. She will also find that the protection afforded to farm workers by the Department of Labour, her department, is hopelessly inadequate.

Let’s remind the minister that her predecessors were also shocked by these findings and, at that time (about ten years ago), they promised to tackle the problem. They also vowed that never will a farm worker work without pay, and never will they work and stay on the farms for many years and be refused to be buried there.

But fast-forward to a decade later. Minister, you’ve seen for yourself now that not much has changed. The question that remains is: what are you going to do about it? Talk is cheap. Condemning the abuses in a media sound byte is one thing. Ensuring that the poor farmworker quoted in the HRW report, who has been living with his wife and children for 10 years in what used to be a pig stall without electricity or water, is given decent living conditions and that his employer is punished by the law is a bigger challenge.

The minister should also know that the problem in the farms is bigger than just sleeping on steel bed springs. There are still many labour law violations such as low wages, food in exchange of labour, long working hours, child labour, hiring illegal immigrants for cheap labour etc. that require serious and urgent attention.

Minister, it’s encouraging that you’ve started cracking down on non-compliance in the farming sector and served 21 prohibition notices to farmers in Bethlehem last week. I hope you make a commitment to inspect all farms across the country. And when you are done, come up with a master plan on how you, along with the relevant government departments, will put an end to the problems farm workers face once and for all.

It’s undisputed that the farming sector contributes immensely to the economy of this country but as Daniel Bekele, Africa director at HRW puts it, “The wealth and well-being these workers produce shouldn’t be rooted in human misery … the government, and the industries and farmers themselves, need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms.”

We don’t want to wait for the minister who will come after you to go to the sugar cane farms in Kwa-Zulu Natal, or to the tomato and mango farms in Limpopo, to express “disturbance” before something is done.

Isaac Mangena is a TV journalist from Limpopo. He previously worked for AFP and Media24. He is a BA graduate from the University of the North (now Limpopo) and is currently the deputy chair of the SADC Media Awards National Adjudication Committee. He writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted at [email protected]

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