International focus stirs media on farm workers’ plight

Posted on August 27, 2011


The plight of a probable majority of farm workers in South Africa has finally made it onto the main news pages and has led radio and television newscasts. It has also received fairly widespread publicity in Europe and the United States.

But the fact that it took a report from an international human rights body about conditions in the Western Cape to achieve this, has annoyed farm worker organisations and trade unions. “There is nothing really new in this report. We have been saying the same things for ten years and more,” is the consensus view among unions.

The report that triggered the flurry of publicity — and condemnation from the farming lobby — came from the Africa section of Human Rights Watch. Based on more than 260 interviews between September last year and May with individuals concerned with the agricultural sector in the Western Cape, it covering 60 farms and resulted in the report, “Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries.”

The Black Association of the Agricultural Sector which still goes under its original acronym, Bawsi (Black Association of the Wine and Spirits Industry) also released a report last Friday that came to similar conclusions about widespread abuse. It is based on surveys conducted on 65 farms over a two-year period, but received scant attention.

“That is nothing new. It is more than ten years ago that we first raised the question of the shocking conditions many farm workers have to endure,” says Bawsi president Nosey Pieterse, a long-time union activist who was one of the founder members of the Cosatu-affiliated Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu). He feels that the media, overall, and with only a few notable exceptions, has failed in its duty to reflect what truly matters in society.

“I think my attack on the media is justified,” he says. “If Julius Malema farts in public it’s on the front page, but if a farm worker is raped, it doesn’t even get mentioned.”

Now, in the wake of the Human Rights Watch report, he hopes things have changed. “It doesn’t matter how it happened or who did it. At least the matters are now being seriously debated,” he says.

This hope is shared by other unions and groups working in the rural areas, most of whom acknowledge that the Western Cape has probably the best record over the past 20 years in terms of improvements in wages and conditions on farms.

“So you can just imagine what it is like in areas such as Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga. From the reports we receive, conditions there are much worse overall,” says Fawu spokesperson Dominique Swartz.

The unions also point out that the backlash from farmers and groups representing their interests has concentrated on the fact that there have been improvements in conditions on some farms, especially in the Western Cape. But they dispute the claim by provincial MEC for agriculture, Gerrit van Rensburg, that the recorded incidents of abuse are “not the norm (but) examples of extreme cases”.

“For most farm workers, nothing much has changed since we first raised this issue,” says Pieterse who also represents the Bawsi-affiliated Agricultural Workers’ Union (Bawusa). However, he readily acknowledges that there are some prominent “exceptions to the rule”.

“But Bawusa is constantly having to take cases to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and we now have a law firm that has us as a primary client,” he says. “It is easy to see that nothing much has really changed.”

It is where things have changed that unions now intend to concentrate. “We are going to say, yes to (the exceptions) and we will promote them. But we will also show up to the world, the farms that abuse workers,” says Patricia Dyata, general secretary of the mainly female Sikhula sonke (Ssonke) union.

Ssonke now wants to join with other unions to formulate a system by which they will effectively “certify” those farms that meet the criteria for decent living and working conditions — and name and shame those that do not make the grade. “We don’t want any boycotts, but we are talking now to international organisations to promote good farmers,” says Dyata.

Although, like Pieterses, she is annoyed that it took an international body to “get this business taken seriously” she is hopeful that farm conditions will now become a media focus. These hopes are pinned on the fact that the international dimension “even got the government to jump up”.

“When Human Rights Watch presented its report even people from the ministry in Pretoria flew down,” she says. The unionists claim that the man from the ministry who spoke at the presentation was “washed away (afgewas) by us.”

Says Dyata: “We told him that all the politicians must acknowledge that they are slapgatte (slackers); that the government must stop being in denial about conditions on the farms.”

So far as most unionists are concerned, the criticism is directed at all politicians and parties. As a result, there is considerable anger that the issue has been seized on by the provincial ANC in the only province governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA). Commenting on the report, Western Cape ANC leader, Marius Fransman, noted that it contains “damning proof of rife human rights abuses”.

“Where were they before?” asks Dyata. “We have toyi-toyied, lobbied and complained for many years when the ANC was here (in the Western Cape) and since 2009 we have the DA. None of them listened,” she says.

“This is just using us as a political football,” notes one worker, insisting “and I am definitely not DA”.

“Most farmers probably are DA, but that is irrelevant,” says Dyata. So too, she maintains, is pigmentation, with increasing “BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) ownership of farms”.

And while the unions agree with Van Rensburg that “one farm worker mistreated is one too many,” they insist that abuse and mistreatment applies to a majority of those who labour on the land.