Job losses: Agri holds tight but is ‘pushed into a corner’

Stats SA reported a record unemployment rate yet again and while the agricultural sector is still holding its ground, farmers say they are being pushed into a corner, having to let employees go

More job losses were recorded in South Africa in the last corner and industry players fear farmworkers could be next when a new minimum wage is implemented in 2022. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

More job losses were recorded in South Africa in the last corner and industry players fear farmworkers could be next when a new minimum wage is implemented in 2022. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Statistics South Africa released its latest quarterly labour force survey this week, and experts across the agricultural sector are concerned that a further 660 000 job losses will leave South Africans increasingly food insecure.

The third-quarter statistics of 2021 now put the official unemployment rate at 34.9%, meaning the country has a staggering 14.3 million people unemployed.

Agri SA executive director Christo van der Rheede says that unemployment-induced poverty is not only a threat to social stability in our country, “but it also erodes the dignity of those who struggle to find a job and who are unable to feed themselves and their families”.

Christo van der Rheede, Agri SA executive director. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

The agricultural sector held tight in sustaining jobs amid tough economic circumstances. Skilled agricultural employment increased by 18 000 from 45 000 to 63 000 in the last quarter, with overall employment increasing by 21 000 year on year.

The Western Cape and Eastern Cape agricultural sectors had quarterly increases in job creation by 12 000 and 25 000 respectively.

Yet Agri SA appeals to government to deal decisively with problems that deter local and international players from investing in the country. “Some of the key concerns that must be resolved include an uncertain policy environment related to ownership, labour market rigidity, high crime levels, high administrative costs and bureaucratic red tape.

“The sharp increases in the price of petrol and diesel are another concern and government must review the levy system and ensure the levy monies are used to fix the roads and logistics infrastructure. Failure to deal decisively with these issues will worsen unemployment in South Africa,“ says Van der Rheede.

Agriculture sector pushed into a corner

Sehularo Sehularo, coordinator of the Northern Cape farmers’ association Saamtrek Saamwerk, expects the agricultural sector to start shedding jobs in the long run.

“Sooner or later the sector will announce job losses. It is not easy. Farmers are not coping at all with [the price of everything] just going up.

“The unemployment stats are really showing how strained our economy is. Running a business in South Africa in this era is a burden and keeping jobs is not an easy task at the moment.”

Farmers furthermore have to balance job numbers with the cost of wages and Sehularo’s fear is for the effect of an upcoming increase in the minimum wage. “We do understand that government needs to develop and transform the industry but at the same time it is becoming unrealistic, taking into consideration that farmers are not making much. Any increase in the minimum wage will collapse many farmers,” he says.

Farmers feeling the pinch

The sector’s overall employment figures offer little consolation to individual farmers trying to keep afloat. A livestock farmer in the Northern Cape, Onthatile Nkunika, says that hiring people to assist her is really a significant challenge because of the financial obligation.

This year she had to let go of two shepherds because she could no longer afford paying them due to shrinking profits.

“It is hard because I do not stay close to my kraal. I need someone to look after my livestock to limit my travelling every day to and from my place. The petrol and feed prices are also not making it easy to run a smooth business.”

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