The demand for specific skills in the agri sector and the double-digit minimum wage increase that was implemented in March this year, have made it economically unjustifiable to keep unskilled farmworkers in the value chain. This, according to Agri SA labour and employment law specialist Lebogang Sethusha.
Farmers in labour-intensive subsectors are also moving towards mechanisation to cut costs, often leading to a lessened demand for farmworkers in the country, she adds.
The looming wage increase for 2022 could claim further jobs in the sector which, Sethusha cautions, could create an unintended barrier to entry for new farmers and farmworkers.
If this happens, South Africa runs the risk of pushing its agri employment number of 792 000 (as recorded by the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz) in the first quarter of 2021) even lower.
During the fourth quarter of 2020, about 810 000 people were employed in the agricultural sector. In the first quarter of 2021 this shrunk to 792 000.
“The balance between the financial needs of workers and keeping farms financially viable for farmworkers to remain employed, will remain at the centre of talks around the minimum wage,” Sethusha says.
With some of the objectives of the National Minimum Wage Act being the alleviation of poverty and the reduction of inequality, she feels there’s a need to determine how the sector can improve the ecosystem in which farmworkers find themselves within rural communities. It is therefor imperative – both from a policy and development perspective – to grow rural economies and increase poverty alleviation efforts that don’t solely rest on wages.
There might also be a need to introduce a system similar to the expanded public works programme (EPWP), for the occasional employment of unskilled labour for agricultural projects.
The EPWP is one of government’s key programmes aimed at providing poverty and income relief through temporary work for the unemployed.
Minimum wage still not enforced
Despite it being cited as a driver of job losses, the minimum wage agreement is not effectively enforced and regulated by the authorities, says Emerentia Patientia, senior project officer at the Dignity for All (D4A) South Africa Wine Project.
If South Africa is serious about changing the plight of the agri worker in the country, this must change.
Patientia says, “Ensuring that farmers increase the wages of their farmworkers is not a unilateral process. It needs to be enforced jointly through the collaborative efforts of agri workers, producers, government and other relevant industry role players.”
South Africa’s regulatory mechanisms are less developed, however, and more non-compliance issues have to be dealt with, which exacerbates the situation. Patientia adds that the department of labour is responsible for the enforcement of all determinations of the the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. But the complaint from the department of labour, is that it is understaffed.
“This is definitely a starting point to ensure enforcement. Effective enforcement highly depends on adequate staffing of the department of labour and ensuring that they have enough resources. The low level of compliance is as a result of limited enforcement by the department of labour.”
Patientia says they have acknowledged the difficulty in enforcing compliance, and suggested initiatives such as voluntary codes of conduct, industry agreements and rewards for farmers who comply as a counter measure.
High demand for SA workers
Meanwhile, an increased demand for South African farmworkers in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States is notable.
In 2019, prior to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, around 275 000 workers entered the US on H-2A visas, a non-immigrant visa programme that allows US officials to bring foreign nationals to the US to fill low-skill, temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs for which US workers are not available.
While more than 90% of these labourers arrive from Mexico, South Africans accounted for the second most in-demand workers.
Just over 7 000 South Africans successfully obtained H-2A visas in 2019, according to the US department of homeland security. Of these, approximately 5 000 temporary work visas were awarded to skilled machinery operators.
Not all farmworkers eligible
However, Judy Stuart, founder of the Future Farmers Foundation, warns that not all farmworkers in the country will get the opportunity to work abroad due to a demand for a particular set of skills.
“There are opportunities overseas, but they are pretty limited. Farmers there are going to be looking for people who are highly skilled and I think the people whom our farmers are letting go of are the less skilled people.”
Another potential issue is that recruiters abroad will want farmworkers who can communicate in speak English.
“And a lot of the farmworkers don’t speak English, so I don’t think it is a solution [to counter unemployment] but it will help a little bit for the few who go there. I don’t think there are enough people going over for it to be making much of an impact.”
Stuart tells Food For Mzansi that the skills that are currently in demand overseas are in the berry, horticulture, piggery and poultry industries. Owners overseas also want farmers who can operate and repair tractors, agricultural machinery and equipment.
“Farmworkers also have to be a certain age to get internships overseas, they have to have a certain amount of experience and good reference letters and, of course, they have to have their Covid-19 vaccinations. Without that, they won’t get their visas.”
Stuart hopes that the economy improves, that fertiliser prices go down and that farmers generate more profit so that farmworkers can get their jobs back.
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