As Mzansi celebrates Human Rights Day, activist Bettie Fortuin believes the South African farmworker is truly the backbone of the agricultural sector, and it is time that they receive the recognition they deserve.
A former farmworker in the Western Cape, Fortuin worked on several farms in the Ceres and De Doorns regions since the age of 13.
Her own advocacy for farmworkers’ rights stems from an eviction from a farm in De Doorns in 1999.
Fortuin tells Food For Mzansi her brother and sister-in-law had died leaving their two children orphaned and in her care.
She had approached her employer asking for him to allow her brother’s children to live with her. Instead, her employer evicted her.
Fortuin had worked for the farmer for ten years.
“He said to me, ‘My farm is not a crèche.’
“I said to him if his farm is not a crèche, then I do not want to live apart from these kids. I cannot leave them to take care of themselves while my brother left them in my care.
“My employer evicted me. I left because I did not know my rights at the time, that was before the year 2000.
“I had to leave my work, my husband had to leave his work and start afresh at a squatter camp where my brother lived,” she explains
In 2014, Fortuin retired, setting her sights on advocating for worker rights, joining Stellenbosch-based advocacy group Women on Farms.
‘The farm worker’s voice must be heard. The government implements these nice laws, all these nice laws are there, but do they benefit us?’
Today Fortuin is an advocate who speaks on behalf of South African farmworkers. She has become a pillar in the farm worker community tackling issues of evictions, underpayment, and unfair dismissal.
“If somebody has got a problem on the farm and they have brought it up with the farmer and the farmer refuses to acknowledge their grievances, they phone me.”
We caught up with the farm worker rights activist, affectionately know as “Aunty Bettie”.
Noluthando Ngcakani: Aunty Bettie, how severe are the cases you have dealt with since you became a full-time activist?
Bettie Fortuin: People do not know their rights. They will just give up, if I knew my rights when I was being forcibly evicted, I would have stood up and said I am not going. I would have told my former employer that that was my house because I had been working for more than ten years, and that the keys belonged to me.
I didn’t know my rights, that is why I walked away quietly. But now I can tell anybody who comes across a similar situation that if you are working for more than ten years on the farm, or your mother or father died, you cannot be evicted.
Even now with Covid-19 we had two or three cases of eviction, but we solved it. I said to the farmer in question, there is a pandemic going on in the world, you cannot evict these people, you are not allowed to evict farmworkers when the world is going through a crisis. You cannot do that. Those people are still back on the farm and at work.
‘If government could put down its foot and hold firm in the law and make farmers obey the law, the farmworker’s life will improve.’
Since you have retired, have there been any improvements made in the conditions that farmworkers work under?
There are a little bit of an improvement, when I grew up there were no toilets, there was no water in the vineyards. Through the fights that we have had, we have seen improvement, there are now toilets in the vineyard so that the ladies can go and do their thing and there are tanks of running water on some of the farms. Not all farmers are bad.
Since farmworkers were afforded an increase of 16% in the minimum wage, there has been speculation that farmers could no longer afford to keep some of their workers. What are your thoughts regarding the possible job losses for farmworkers because of the increase?
With this new minimum wage, a lot of people will lose their jobs. Farmers will say they do not have enough money to pay workers – our eyes and ears are open.
Some of these farmers own 15 to 16 farms all by themselves, they must let go of them because they are too many for a farmer with two sons and one daughter to own. It is too much for one farmer to own such a lot of farms. They cannot say they do not have money
If government could put down its foot and hold firm in the law and make farmers obey the law, the farmworker’s life will improve.
Food is so expensive. If me and the farmer’s wife go to Shoprite, we will pay the same price. Its not like the food prices change (for you based on whether you are) a farmworker or a farmer, everything is the same price. Farmworkers and farm dwellers do not pay less, we pay equally.
What are the current challenges in achieving farmworkers’ rights?
We cannot reach all the people to teach them to know their rights. To see eye to eye we are trying to stretch as far as we can.
The farmworkers’ voice must be heard. The government implements these nice laws, all these nice laws are there, but do they benefit us?
If all those pretty, nice laws are there, they whisper in corners. We do not form part of those conversations. If farmworkers were part of the laws, I think our lives would be better.
Even now in Covid they overload those transportation trucks. People are loaded like sheep on one truck, and there is no social distancing.