Every day for most people a short prayer of gratitude at mealtimes is a way to give thanks for the food they eat. But how often do we actually think about the agri-workers who are instrumental in getting that food to our plates.
Statistics South Africa reported in December 2018 that we have 849 000 agricultural workers in the country. Men make up about two-thirds and the rest are women. Whilst the men are in the majority with increased job security, the women’s contribution is often still seasonal and thus by nature precarious and insecure.
Roseline Engelbrecht, Labour Rights Programme Coordinator for the Women on Farms Project, a Stellenbosch based non-governmental organisation, says: “Farm workers are the backbone of our economy and yet they are the most marginalised and forgotten citizens.”
“Despite their selfless contributions they retire with nothing to call their own, no land, no housing and no retirement fund.” – Roseline Engelbrecht
South Africa has come a long way in protecting worker’s rights and particularly focussing on the agricultural sector where the industry is struggling to move away from its historical context of colonialism, slavery, apartheid and the so-called “dop system”. Many workers are still stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty with very little room to see themselves moving forward. Even though the “dop system” has long been outlawed the legacy of alcoholism is still felt in many communities across the country.
Engelbrecht believes women face a particularly hard struggle as farm dwellers. “Workers, and specifically female workers, who live and work on commercial farms typically experience intersecting livelihood challenges arising from their labour rights violations, landlessness, household food insecurity, and lack of alternative income-generating skills and opportunities.”
She emphasises that with housing rights on farms linked to labour contracts, housing contracts are often in the name of male permanent workers. This leaves women who live on farms as “dependents” or “appendages” of their husbands, fathers and brothers and not contractors in their own rights. In a general context where gender-based violence is rife, women’s lack of independent housing and access to land renders them extremely vulnerable.
Christo Van der Rheede, Agri SA’s Deputy Executive Director, says they have the highest appreciation for farm workers. He explains that many farmers make a lot of effort to develop their employees by offering them opportunities and to give them a home.
“When people have a home they’re anchored.” – CHRISTO VAN DER RHEEDE
However, Van der Rheede believes more can be done to ensure farmworkers have security of tenure. It is in light of this expectation that Agri SA has embarked on working toward the smart village concept. Despite some push-back from other agricultural role-players he is hopeful they will have more clarity about how they can ensure security of tenure for agri-workers.
Van der Rheede emphasises that working on a farm doesn’t really ensure a strong future. “We must offer training and opportunities to further their schooling to enable them to leave the farm. Unfortunately, being a farm worker is considered a low occupation, as there is very little room for growth unless you’re considering owning a farm.”
He highlights that another challenge is that the farmworker of the future needs a stronger skills set. “The farmworker would need computer skills and training in technology and strong entrepreneurial skills.” He believes that the current focus should not be on keeping people on farms, but to offer them opportunities to gain the skills and knowledge to be able to access more advanced career opportunities.
Farmworkers, as a category, are highly exploited and deserve recognition for their contributions, says Sithandiwe Yeni, National Coordinator of Tshintsha Amakhaya, the civil society alliance for land and food justice in South Africa.
When asked about how we could possibly improve the working and living conditions of agri-workers in SA, Yeni says: “We need to change the property relations that underpin the living conditions and status of farm dwellers.”
“This means redistributing land. Land reform was meant to do precisely this, however the implementation has been poor. There are laws in place that speak to land redistribution for farm dwellers, such as Section 4 of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act of 1996,” Yeni adds.
According to Yeni the reality is that this has not been done. Instead, more and more farm dwellers are evicted on a regular basis. Many of these evictions are illegal, yet farm owners are not arrested for illegally evicting farm dwellers.
Engelbrecht believes that the issues are broader than just the relationship between land owners and their workers. She says that in order to move forward we need to break the isolation of farmworker issues in general.
“People in the urban areas are so far removed from the issues of farmworkers. We need to narrow the gap. Change is only going to happen when we all develop a consciousness of what’s going on around us.”