Farm evictions, mistreatment, victimisation, and problematic old-age policies. These are but some of the grim realities that many agricultural workers in South Africa have to grin and bear.
Furthermore, MEC for agriculture, environmental affairs, land reform and rural development in the Northern Cape, Mase Manopole, says the treatment of women on farms is often appalling and cannot be allowed to continue.
This, as South Africans commemorate Human Rights Day today in remembrance of the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for the attainment of democracy in South Africa.
“A case in point is when during farm inspection by our officials accompanied by the department of labour to Twee Strome Boerdery in [the] ZF Mgcawu [district] found female farmworkers housed in a horse stable and the farm owner deducting rent from their salaries,” says Manopole.
The MEC says the farmer described the deduction as “rental money” due for accommodation. This, she believes, is “absurd and totally uncalled for.”
Manopole tells Food For Mzansi that the farmer was given a warning and instructed to move the farmworkers to an area where they could live in dignity.
“We have intensified our farmworkers campaign, with special focus on women and girl children who are in many cases abuse and marginalised in farms across the province,” she said.
Manopole says the Northern Cape’s campaign to bring dignity to farmworkers’ living and work circumstances will continue. It includes reaching out to farms in the province, educating people about their human rights and ensuring that farmers comply with the law.
She will leave no stone unturned to ensure that farms act responsibly, especially toward workers, says the MEC. They must be treated with the respect and care that they deserve as human beings, and not mere “subjects” on a farm.
“Dismissals and evictions of farmworkers without proper channels will also have to stop. Farmworkers have inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected,” adds Manopole.
Collective effort needed to face challenges
Meanwhile, Emerentia Patientia, a senior project officer at Fairtrade Africa, tells Food For Mzansi that farmworkers are still subjected to exploitation and often reluctant to speak out.
Patientia, who heads up Fairtrade Africa’s Western Cape Dignity For All Wine Farmworkers project, says, “Our government needs to do more. We need more labour inspectors because the current ones are overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done.
“Government should provide housing for those farmworkers who are being evicted from farms. They have been living in those places for years. They have nowhere to go when they are left homeless,” she says.
Patientia believes these challenges can only be addressed through a collective effort.
“We are all working in silos, but we are trying to achieve the same thing. Government, civil groups, farmers and unions need to work together, be under one roof and come up with a lasting and solid plan for the betterment of the workers.”
Deneco Dube of the Commercial, Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union explains that evictions are their biggest concern concerning farm dwellers.
“[Some] farmers are evicting farmworkers and dwellers as and when they please. Before that, they will switch off water and electricity for them. Those are basic human rights and needs. How are they supposed to live without those?
“[This leads] to young farm dwellers [resorting] to crime because they are literally dumped into the streets with nowhere to go.”
Dube says government had a responsibility to protect the rights of farmworkers, especially since there are many farmers who seem to not respect their workers. “They can evict them at any time. We call on government to provide adequate housing for farmworkers who are evicted.”
He has also come across many instances where workers were threatened that they would lose their perks, such as housing and transport to work, should they raise their concerns with unions.
Treatment of farmworkers
University of Western Cape researcher Haidee Swanby says it is important for those in leadership roles to know how the most vulnerable in society were doing. The economy needs to support disadvantaged groups, she says.
“As we rapidly urbanise, it is really time for government to rethink our strategic approach to nutrition, food production, health, economic needs, land use and environmental and social justice.
“More broadly, perhaps, I can say that we are locked into an unjust and broken food system which is based on an in humane economic system.”
Swanby tells Food For Mzansi that the success of the agriculture sector should not be based on the financial growth and foreign investment alone, but rather how it treats farmworkers.
“As we rapidly urbanise it is really time for government to rethink our strategic approach to nutrition, food production, health, economic needs, land use and environmental and social justice.
“More broadly perhaps I can say that we are locked into an unjust and broken food system which is based on an in humane economic system,” she said.
Swanby said the success of the sector should not be based on the financial growth and foreign investment but rather how it treats farm workers.
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