Farmworkers in Mzansi continue to work under severe working conditions and many are ill-treated. Even though their rights and dignity are sometimes undermined, many of them opt to not belong to any unions for representation, according to a labour experts.
Ighsaan Schroeder from the Casual Workers Advice Office said the level of trust and fear of intimidation are some of the reasons why farmworkers are reluctant to belong to any agricultural unions. He said, in some instances, their concerns are not being met.
Fear of victimisation
Schroeder spoke to Food For Mzansi, following a three-day National Farm Worker platform which was aimed at addressing the challenges faced by agricultural workers, mainly women on farms.
“Many of the farmworkers we have spoken to across the country fear victimisation of belonging to the unions. For some, it is a matter of affordability to pay the monthly rates for union membership.
“Some of these farmworkers feel that the unions are not representing them well. They also feel no need to belong to any union since they are seasonal workers in most cases,” he said.
According to their research, Schroeder explained, less than 2% of farmworkers belonged to a union, and this has been the case for many years.
“For example, in some areas like De Doorns, some farmworkers are hired by agencies, and some do not stay on the farms. So, the distance and the isolation of farmworkers play a crucial role in South Africa not having a solid farmworker union that raises their concerns.”
The rise of non-governmental organisations
“This has resulted in farmworkers’ matters being headed by non-governmental organisations such as Women on Farms and others, due to the lack of one strong union dominating in South Africa,” he said.
Schroeder added that the reason non-governmental institutions have tapped in on the issues of workers is that their issues are not only industrial, or work-related but involve their living conditions.
“When dealing with farmworkers, it is very difficult to separate the issues. Farmworkers will always raise the issues of health, housing, water and sanitation, which unions cannot freely come through on,” he said.
‘Get your house in order’
According to Schroeder, agricultural unions also need to deal with corruption among themselves so that agricultural workers could have a sense of trust and belonging. “I do not think farmworkers will be reluctant to pay if they believe and trust the initiative will be to their benefit,” he said.
In responding to the deregistering of agricultural unions, Thembinkosi Mkalipi, deputy director general for labour policy and industrial relations at the department of labour and employment, said if the unions are not adhering to the regulations, they would be removed from the database.
“We are guided by laws in the country. If a union does not go to a conference and submit relevant information, the registrar of the department will deregister it and that decision stands,” he said.
Workers should report mistreatment
Mkalipi called on farmworkers to continue engaging the department with a key focus on coming up with solutions that would make their lives easier.
He called on the farmworkers to report corruption to the necessary law enforcement agencies instead of keeping quiet.
“If you know of something or have seen something that is against the law, please report it, it’s very important to stand out and talk,” he said.
Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) Zolani Mbanjwa said unions are trying their level best to assist farmworkers. What they would like to see more of was monitoring and evaluation from the government in terms of farm inspections.
Mbanjwa said politicking and finger-pointing are no good when it comes to farmworkers, but rather finding common ground on how to assist them the best.
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