William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

ILO mistakenly assumes that its old ANC pal is pragmatic

Voters elect politicians on the basis of their proclaimed ideology. However, it is not ideology that drives government effectiveness. Rather it is how ideology is adapted to resolving real-life problems.

This week’s report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is a reminder to what extent, despite all evidence to the contrary, African National Congress (ANC) politicians still have blind faith in Marxist scripture. It is also a challenge, gallingly from an organisation that during the struggle accorded them consultative status, to the tripartite alliance’s hardliners to embrace pragmatism.

The ILO report, ”Farm Workers’ Living and Working Conditions in South Africa”, states that “outdated assumptions and over simplifications continue to fuel unhealthy polarisation” between key players in agriculture. It paints a picture of a sector under tremendous, transforming pressures.

It is worth noting that this is a sector that is now much smaller than most South Africans probably realise. The 2011 census found that only 5.28% of the population lived in farming areas, with barely 2-million actually on farms. Since then, the move off the land has continued and possibly accelerated.

The number of small farmers — the recalcitrant, bullying Boer that is the staple of Economic Freedom Front caricature — has declined remarkably, while agribusiness has grown to take his place. Since 1994, the number of commercial farmers shrunk from 120,000 to 36,000. Even this overstates the commercial balance of power, since the top three-dozen agribusinesses deliver about two-thirds of farm output.

These big agricultural producers are nevertheless, says the ILO, being squeezed by powerful international and local retail interests, who effectively set prices. Simultaneously, the state has “inserted itself powerfully” into agriculture on the side of the workers, in respect of tenancy rights, minimum wages and land redistribution.

The producer response to these twin pressures was predictable to most people, although it seems not to the ANC. Faced with no government support in resisting globalisation and simultaneously rising input costs, as well as increased political uncertainty, agricultural producers resorted to three coping mechanisms, according to the ILO: decreasing full time employment; increasing casual and outsourced labour; and seeking economies of scale through mechanisation.

It has made for a grim situation for the approximately 700,000 workers employed in agriculture, hunting, forestry and fishing. Barely half of them have full-time employment and two-thirds earn less than R1,600 per month, although the ILO concedes that there is a “fairly high” compliance with government regulations on wages and benefits.

Part of the conundrum is that many farmers cannot afford to pay R150 per day but, at the same time, a household of two parents and two children cannot live healthily even if both are earning R150 per day. It’s a stalemate, says the ILO.

Government policy — such as last year’s pre-election announcement that farmers would have to cede without compensation up to half of their land to the workers housed on it — is “hugely out of step” with reality, says the ILO. Such state initiatives have caused a steady shedding of full-time labour, with the loss of around 400,000 jobs over the past 20 years.

As part of this cascade of misfortune, rural towns “that used to resemble sleepy hollows” have developed into sprawling, under-serviced, informal settlements. Since rural municipalities mostly lack adequate infrastructure, raw sewerage is ending up in river courses, which “poses a threat to the exportability of irrigated crops that are subjected to stringent food safety standards”.

The government’s farm worker housing assistance programme is similarly “myopic”, since it doesn’t subside housing for seasonal workers or for those in towns. And because “government’s prevaricating statements on land reform have further increased producer’s perceptions of their own vulnerability”, farmers are not going risking losing their land by housing workers on-farm.

Government, says the ILO, has a “critical role” in breaking the stalemate. State interventions since 1994, aimed at improving farm worker livelihoods, have “largely failed … because [government] does not appreciate that the fortunes of workers and producers are interlinked.”

The ILO report makes a number of specific recommendations that would improve farm worker bargaining power and address the terrible housing problem. It also urges the government to support producers, to enable them to deal with international market pressures.

There is one throwaway line, however, which encapsulates the difference between the ILO and the ANC, and marks the gulf between pragmatism and rigidity. Regarding labour brokers, the ILO says simply that they should not be banned but better regulated, since they “currently fulfil an important function co-ordinating seasonal work”. Any observer of the bitter and emotive years-long battle by the alliance to ban labour broking should know that things just don’t work like that in SA.

The ILO’s belief in rationality — the assumption that this is a government capable of pragmatism — is the report’s fatal flaw. This is why the ILO’s best advice, like the government’s own National Development Plan, will come to naught.

Both are based on the pragmatic search for compromise solutions. By definition, this contradicts the rigid articles of Marxist faith demanding blind obeisance, by which the SA Communist Party insists the ANC alliance abides.

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