Farm workers’ toil rewarded with degrading wages

Stories of the daily degradation and exploitation of farm workers have burst open since the beginning of the farm worker strike in De Doorns in the Western Cape that many expect to spread to other provinces. The violation of farm workers’ rights is nothing new but the regrettable violence is a sign of growing frustration and an unwillingness to go unheard any longer.

Although farm workers’ rights are enshrined in the Bill of Rights and a plethora of legislation and industry codes of conduct severe problems persist on farms around the country. Farm workers and their families and former farmworkers are confronted daily with substandard conditions in general. Despite contributing to the billions of rand brought into the economy, farm workers earn among the lowest wages in South Africa and have insecure land tenure rights, rendering them and their families vulnerable to a constant risk of evictions.

Most concerning is the fact that exploitative labour practices and human rights abuses which occur to varying degrees on farms across the country are perpetrated by farm owners and managers notwithstanding comprehensive government regulation. Yet the relevant government departments, especially the departments of labour and agriculture, have failed to enforce compliance and to protect farmworkers and other farm dwellers.

These violations have been carefully documented by human rights organisations, such as the SA Human Rights Commission and more recently Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Unionisation and wages
Taking from a 2011 HRW report, farm workers remain among the most poorly organised workers in the country with a mere 3% of workers in the Western Cape being represented by unions compared to the 30% of those with formal employment in South Africa as a whole.

Farmers regularly hamper workers’ access to representation, resulting in them being unable to negotiate better working and living conditions and wages. Farmers often deny union representatives access to their farms and threaten union organisers.

As of 2011, the Western Cape had only 107 labour inspectors responsible for visiting over 6 000 farms in the province.

Whether a farmer’s children complete high school or go on to complete a tertiary quality is a matter of choice but for farm workers, it is very rare for their children to finish high school, let alone attend university. When a worker’s child reaches its teens, they are often forced to work on the farm to pay for their stay. If they do not work, compensation is deducted from their parents’ wages.

This is not to say that all farms and farmers in the Western Cape should be lumped together. There are a small number of cases in which farmers fully comply and even go beyond the legal requirements for workers.

Illegal evictions and substandard living conditions
Farm workers mostly live in houses provided by farm owners on commencement of duty. Their homes are attached to their continued employment on the farm and they are evicted when their employment is terminated, regardless of the cause. Termination is often a result of old age, incapacity as a result of injuries sustained at work and unfair dismissals, to name a few.

Although the law, via the Extension of Security of Tenure Act of 1997, prescribes parameters within which evictions can take place, most farmers ignore these and evict workers and their families without following due process. In the process, furniture and other paraphernalia are irreversibly damaged, children’s schooling is affected, the sick and elderly who might be affected are exposed to even more hard conditions that come with being homeless.

Accommodation is often uninhabitable with one farm worker describing to HRW having lived with his family in a former pig stall without electricity or water for over 10 years.

A 2005 study concluded that more than 930 000 people were evicted from farms between 1994 and 2004.

Cases of farmer resorting to illegal measures to evict workers have also been widely reported. These include cutting off electricity and water supply while security guards on the farm harass families using dogs in the middle of the night.

It has also been seen that farmers will attempt to force workers off the farm by telling new workers to move into the former’s home, despite the family still in residence.

Health issues
Work on farms is physically exhausting and can be dangerous, especially when the necessary health and safety precautions are not taken. For instance, workers are often exposed to pesticides during the course of their work without having adequate safety equipment.

While farm owners and their families may have access to health care, including clinics and hospitals freely, the same cannot be said about workers and their families, who need permission for a day off to visit a far off clinic. Getting transport is difficult and costly. The worker’s life is threatened by factors including being unable to reach a medical facility, not having sufficient or healthy food to boost their immune system and being refused access to clean and running water and electricity when there are labour or other residential disputes with the farm owner.

LHR receives regular complaints from workers who are not allowed to take legally acquired sick days despite having a doctor’s letter – in direct contravention of our labour laws.

With this perpetual cycle exploitation and indignity, the events at De Doorns and even Marikana seem to have rekindled and restored a welcome hope among farm workers that their collective mobilisation and sacrifice will eventually pay off. The time is now to regain their dignity and be meaningfully acknowledged as participants rather than objects that are only relevant in imparting their labour.

Wages that seek to perpetuate the degrading situation of the farm workers and their families should be treated for what it is, an affront to their human dignity and be despised by the civilised society that we are expected to be. One can only hope that the unfolding events in De Doorns signals the end of an era of impunity when workers and their descendants are treated as feudal objects of violations by some farmers.

Hopefully farmers will start to recognise the perils of employing an unrepresented workforce, when enraged, can be difficult to engage with. Unlike their old and still prevailing norm where they consider labour unions and lawyers as enemies and a bad influence on workers, farmers must recognise that these role-players’ involvement can facilitate informed and constructive engagements in search of sustainable solutions to the labour disputes.

  • Written by Lesirela Letsebe, Cindy Joy Williams and Nanki Ngqabuko from the Security of Farm Workers Project: Stellenbosch Law Clinic, Lawyers for Human Rights