Farmworkers rejoice after finally getting the national minimum wage, but many organisations fear it may plunge the agricultural sector into further financial crisis.
After the new wage of R21.69 per hour was gazetted, farmworkers might lose their jobs. The 16% increase from R18.68 means workers will now take home about R350 more per month.
While they understand farmworkers’ plight, Agri SA says “the poorest households are in need of access to employment. The immediate equalisation puts many jobs at risk.
“If farmers cannot produce food affordably and employ agricultural workers on a large scale, this will result in a food crisis and large-scale social upheaval as food insecurity and unemployment start to take root,” says Agri SA executive director, Christo van der Rheede.
‘It doesn’t make sense’
“Government will need to decide whether it is serious about addressing unemployment. The pandemic continuous to wreak havoc and unemployment is on the increase. To approve of a 16% increase therefore does not make sense.”
Afriwu general secretary Gafieldien Benjamin, however, maintains arguments of unaffordability are unfounded.
“It just indicates who and what these leaders and stakeholders value more. It is definitely not their workers and their efforts on farms.”
Benjamin tells Food For Mzansi that the workers’ union welcomes the minimum wage increase for farmworkers.
They question, though, why there is still a distinction between the minimum wage for farmworkers and other job categories. Retail, wholesale and contract cleaning workers generally earn more than farmworkers.
“Why shouldn’t they be valued more or at least the same as other workers?” asks Benjamin.
“They are exposed to weather as well chemical elements in the orchards, vineyard and fields. They are involved in the primary production of food and are feeding our nation.”
Better than SASSA grants?
TLU SA president Henry Geldenhuys also warn of negative consequences.
“The lockdown regulations severely damaged the South African economy. A standard approach to adjusting the minimum wage will not be feasible.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, farmers’ already struggled to afford wages. This resulted in the highest levels of unemployment in recent history, says Geldenhuys.
Also, those who will work for less are now limited. “If someone chooses to work for R100 a day getting experience and an income, rather than receiving a grant of R40 a day, it should be their choice.”
Workers kept in poverty
This statement, however, angers Benjamin. It is offensive to speak on farmworkers’ behalf when they haven’t mandated you, he says. It also does not reflect the workers’ experiences.
“Those who make the comparison between work income and a social grants are obfuscating and trying to confuse matters. No working adult in this country must earn less than R100 per day (R73.52 less than the minimum wage),” says Benjamin.
“THIS COULD LEAD TO FARMERS DECIDING TO QUIT THE SECTOR OR TO DRASTICALLY REDUCE EMPLOYMENT.”
Why can’t farmers afford it?
Lebogang Sethusha, a labour specialist with Agri SA, says most farmers cannot afford the new wage, bearing in mind that the agricultural sector comprises mostly small- to medium-scale farmers.
Commercial farmers, who are likely to afford the higher wage, only make up a small percentage of the sector, she says.
With wage costs making up a substantial part of productions costs, the new wage is simply unsustainable.
“These small- to medium-scale farmers have already endured the effects of severe droughts, compounded by the effects of the pandemic,” says Sethusha.
Ultimately, consumers will pick up the tab for the higher wages through inflation which, in turn, make food unaffordable for the very people who government is now trying to help.
Will farmers quit?
The new minimum wage could even lead to farmers deciding to leave the agricultural sector, believes Ben van der Walt, general secretary of SAPTU.
“Labour is one of the most important production factors and plays a vital role in growing the economy,” he says, nothing that many other small businesses rely on the agricultural sector to survive.