Out of South Africa’s nine provinces, the greatest number of farm-workers resides in the wealthy and fertile Western Cape.Despite their fundamental role in the success of our country’s valuable fruit, wine, and tourism industries, farm-workers benefit very little, in large part because they are subject to exploitative conditions and human rights abuses without sufficient protection of their rights.
These abusive practices, which occur to varying degrees on a wide array of farms within the province, are perpetrated by farm owners or farm managers who are subject to regulation by the South African government, both provincially and nationally.
Yet, it seems, both levels of government in our country have failed to protect the rights of farm-workers and farm dwellers, or to ensure that farmers throughout the province comply with national law.
The litany of the causes of the recent farm-worker strike action in De Doorns and elsewhere in the Western Cape is now clearly in the public domain.
Alienated from the land; a lack of security of tenure; the violation of basic human rights; the perpetuation of a culture of exploitation; a lack of respect and proper treatment; difficulty in accessing basic amenities; long distances to access basic government services; and a feeling of isolation as if they are not an integral part of South African society and our democracy.
These are the daily realities of farm-workers in our country.
At the root of the problem it seems is a culture of reluctant compliance by some farm-owners. Even in instances where farms are thriving as a result of new markets opening post-apartheid, and booming export markets.
This lack of transformation and lack of change in mindset is especially evident in the Western Cape where due to local government policies and economic ideology, a greater importance is attached to the concerns of farm-owners than the survival and basic human rights of farm-workers and dwellers.
This is clearly highlighted by the way certain farm-owners construe the industry minimum wage as the maximum wage and the expectation that workers must sacrifice their basic human rights at the altar of economic growth.
When farm-owners do make overtures to comply with a decent wage as a result of strike action or other external issues, they then load it with all manner of deductions for rent, electricity, water, and sundries, effectively leaving workers with a pittance barely able to feed and clothe themselves not to mention their dependents.
It is important to consider that the concept of sectoral determination of minimum wage in the agriculture sector of our country is based on a worst-case scenario. That being low production and under-performing farms.
However, some farm-owners attempt to dupe farm-workers into accepting a minimum-wage of R69 a day – despite enjoying conditions of growth and relative prosperity.
Thus, using the concept of minimum wage determination to perpetuate poverty, insecurity and hunger on farms around our country.
Surely farm-owners in our country must show goodwill and ensure that that those who generate wealth for them are able to share in the fruits of their labour and seek ways to transform the current exploitative environment.
The history of farm-worker action and strikes over the past two decades, particularly in the Western Cape is a bitter one and is littered with case histories of ways to circumvent the law, identify loopholes, exploiting technicalities and appointing expensive consultants schooled in the culture of malicious and minimalist compliance perpetuating the hegemony of farm-workers.
This has been nowhere more evident than the many cases of security of tenure in which farm-dwellers and workers who for generations have been living on farms are evicted on some technicality or duped into signing agreements which they don’t fully understand.
It is clear that farm-workers in our country cannot be left at the mercy and goodwill of farm-owners as the latter with a few exceptions have demonstrated an unwillingness to transform their attitudes and labour practices.
Lee-Roy Chetty holds a masters degree in media studies from the University of Cape Town and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A two-time recipient of the National Research Fund Scholarship, he is currently completing his PhD at UCT and an economics degree with Unisa.
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