Where do we begin to fix the inhumane working and living conditions for farmworkers and farm dwellers in Mzansi? The solutions might be more obvious than we think, some key figures in the agri sector reckon.
This comes as governmental oversight committees on agriculture and labour will mission from tomorrow (Friday, 22 July 2022) to assess living conditions on farms in the Eastern and Western Cape.
But if South Africa wants to find solutions, it first needs to take a good look at the reasons for Mzansi’s ongoing struggle with the problem.
According to Emerentia Patientia, manager at Fairtrade Africa’s Dignified Opportunities Nurtured Through Trade and Sustainability, it all starts with legislation not being enforced.
The exploitation and abuse continue despite progressive legislation from the 1990s, she says.
“Farmworkers are vulnerable and face ongoing exploitation, evictions and casualisation of jobs. A vulnerable farmworker has very little power to address unfair situations as they stand to lose a lot.”
The shortage of labour inspectors increases this vulnerability, Patientia believes, and it means that government is failing to enforce compliance to their own legislation.
“Trade unions have challenges to represent workers because they need at least a 51% membership on a farm to effectively represent the workers and engage in collective bargaining. Unfortunately, unions and some workers are still concerned that unions are not allowed on farms and not allowed to speak to the workers.”
Also adding to the problem, is farmworkers’ own reluctance to report wrongdoing. Patientia, who works closely with agri workers in the wine industry, explains that this is because they feel vulnerable to evictions and casualisation, among other reasons.
“As a result, many of the violations and exploitation go unreported or, when reported, remain unresolved or disappear, leaving the worker even more vulnerable and subject to victimisation.”
Lastly, Patientia believes, fragmentation needs to be eradicated.
“My mantra when approaching an intrinsic and multifaceted challenge is always: collaboration is key. It does not matter how good an organisation or system is, if you choose to approach something unilaterally, you will leave certain key issues untouched.”
She believes this to be a snare to the agricultural industry and its slow transformation. “Some of the issues have been existing for decades, yet new legislation have been put in place.
“But because we want to be everything to everyone, we lose focus and contradict one another instead of working together in an integrated manner. If there are efforts to collaborate, only a handful knows about it and sometimes key organisations are excluded.”
Call for 100% compliance
Vinpro managing director Rico Basson says compliance to South African legislation is a non-negotiable to the wine industry. “Therefore, we have incorporated a target within our 10-year strategic plan towards 2025, where we would like to see 100% compliance with ethical accreditation in our sector.
Basson states that, today, 75% of the total harvest of 1,3 million tonnes of wine grapes, is processed under ethically accredited conditions.
“This level of audited compliance is not only setting a benchmark in South African agriculture, but also globally. The SA wine industry is furthermore the largest supplier of Fairtrade wines globally. This implies that more than 40 000 workers are employed under ethical conditions,” Basson says.
He believes that much of the industry goes above and beyond minimum requirements.
“Upskilling and socio-economic programmes are evidence of a transformation journey to ensure improvement of conditions in rural regions, on farms and in wineries.”
The road to repair
For Patientia, the solutions to the persisting challenges are quite obvious. She believes it is pointless to change legislation when the answer might well just be increasing the capacity of trade unions and the number of labour inspectors.
“This will ensure that the situation is monitored and resolutions remain close to the ground, where workers can experience the change and feel less vulnerable.”
Secondly, closer collaboration between government, industry leaders, producers and workers will make significant strides towards affecting change.
“If this does not happen we will have this discussion again ten years from now. We cannot do the same things and expect different results.”
Basson agrees that collaboration is urgently needed, but stresses that more support needs to come from the state. As agriculture is the backbone of Mzansi’s rural communities, he says, the state should fulfil its enablement role.
“This relates to investment and upkeep of infrastructure, affordable health services, housing, and education – all areas where we find that industry is often reliant on itself to provide these services with limited support.”
For an industry that pays R6 billion in taxation annually, this is unacceptable, Basson says, “even more so as profitability remains under significant pressure”.
“While the sector will continue its efforts to improve lives and livelihoods,” he adds, “we cannot do this on our own.”
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