The most exploited — and largely ignored — workers

Posted on July 29, 2011


As we seem to be plunging into an even deeper global economic morass, the concentration by the media — including this column — has been on the big battalions of labour locally, and on debt-ridden governments and the industrial and financial tycoons who seem, increasingly, to be lining their pockets to an ever greater degree.

This is an important focus, but it often seems remote, almost academic, to most workers on the shopfloor. The apparent complexities and the outrageously large — trillions of dollars — debt burdens of countries such as the United States are simply too much to digest. As are the consequences of debt default by the US or Eurozone countries.

The focus of public servants, miners, metal and chemical workers is on housing allowances of R1 650 a month, on double digit pay increases and, in some cases, a minimum “living wage” of R6 000 a month. This in an environment where employers have already taken 20 per cent-plus increases and where the amount paid to some bosses exceeds R1 million a month.

But for one group of workers around the country even these figures seem mind boggling and as remote as the US deficit does to many industrial workers. They are the farm workers — between 600 000 and 1 million of them, nobody seems to know for sure — who remain the most exploited sector of the working community.

While it is true that they may be legally charged no more than 10 per cent of their wages for accommodation that must include electricity and access to a toilet, their legal minimum wage has only recently been adjusted to R1 375.94 a month. The latest adjustment — courtesy of a labour department decree — came into effect on March 1 and amounts to R57 or 4.5 per cent on the previous minimum of R1 231.

This increase shocked several members of the labour movement who had monitored farm wages. The Cape Town-based Labour Research Service (LRS), for example, estimated that the increase would be 8 per cent, for a R1 500 a month wage. “Which, in anybody’s language, is certainly not a living wage,” LRS deputy director Trenton Elsley noted at the time.

But the 4.5 per cent pay award was announced in ringing tones by departmental spokesperson Page Boikanyo. “It will bring smiles to more than 600 000 farm workers,” he said.

“Smiles” was hardly the word — even for those workers who heard the news or received the increase. And there were certainly smirks of derision when Boikie Mampuru, director of the department’s inspections and enforcement services, warned of “blitz inspections” to ensure that “those who ignore these amendments will meet the might of the law and will be forced to comply”.

“The simple truth is that many farmers do not pay even the minimum, nobody checks, and the workers are often too intimidated to complain,” says former farm worker Patricia Dyata, the acting general secretary of the largely female and Stellenbosch-based Sikhula sonke (Ssonke — We grow together) union.

“But there are farmers who do pay more than the minimum wage,” says Dominique Swartz, media officer of the the larger, and Cosatu-affiliated Food and Agriculture Workers’ Union (Fawu) that organises on a national basis. Dyata agrees, but both she and Swartz admit that such cases are “few and far between” and usually on farms where unions are not only tolerated, but welcome.

How few and far between these are can be judged by the fact that fewer than 30 000 farm labourers — less than 5 per cent of the workforce — belong to a union. “And even where we have the union, there can be problems,” says Dyata, although, in such cases, farm owners can be made to keep to the letter of the law.

That letter states that no more than 10 per cent of wages may be charged for accommodation. However, services such as electricity may be an additional charge.

“We have had workers given electricity bills of between R400 and R700 a month,” says Dyata. “We complained to the labour department, but they say the charge for electricity is not controlled.”

However, since electricity tariffs increased this month by up to 30 per cent, even those farmers who do not charge a premium for the service will have to increase the bill to workers. “And the percentage increase will have to be five or six times the recent pay increase,” says a Ssonke organiser.

Last year the three labour federations represented in the tripartite Nedlac forum, threatened a general strike should the increases be agreed. The increases went ahead and have now been implemented, without labour’s big battalions taking action.

“In any case, we do not have the power to strike, even if electricity bills are as high as R700,” says Dyata. Farm worker strikes are also generally ruled out by Fawu which has not yet had reports about over-charging for electricity. “But I wouldn’t be surprised, because that sort of thing goes on all the time,” says Swartz.

“That sort of thing”, she adds, includes credit for over-priced foodstuffs and alcohol and even for transport to the nearest town to shop, often meaning a pittance in the wage packet at month end. “This is a miserable existence, so it is no wonder we still have a massive problem with alcoholism,” says Dyata.

Widespread alcohol abuse, she maintains, is not only a legacy of the notorious “dop” system used in the recent past by wine farmers who paid part of workers’ wages in liquor. “When you are desperate, you just get drunk to forget,” she says.

“But most of the reports of physical abuse and intimidation that we get come from the North West and Limpopo,” says Swartz. Illegal evictions also remain a problem.

What the unions want is not just a living wage for farm workers, but dignity and appreciation for the labour that feeds the country. “However, politicians and their friends have an interest in keeping things like this,” says Dyata.