There should have been no surprise or outrage expressed by mining companies, agribusiness, and government officials about the recent explosion of strikes and protests on mines and farms. And trade unionists across the board should not have been caught flat-footed by the outbursts of anger that erupted in the North West, Limpopo and now in the Western Cape.
That many of these parties expressed surprise is a clear indication that they had been smugly complacent; that some then voiced outrage, along with calls for harsh crackdowns, seems a reflection of gross hypocrisy: no interested party can claim to have been ignorant of the plentiful warnings about what was brewing, especially on the farms and plantations, but also on the mines.
There have been reminders throughout the years, not the least of which being Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s repeated warning about a “ticking time bomb” of poverty and unemployment. But most of these warnings were ignored — until August last year.
It was in that month that this column noted: “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.”
“Finally made it” was the phrase used because similar complaints, relating to mines as well as farms, along with often well-documented evidence, had been available for ten years and more. The evidence that last year triggered a minor media storm, along with implied warnings of trouble to come, was contained in a report by the Africa section of Human Rights Watch.
The report, entitled “Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries”, was based on more than 260 interviews and covered 60 farms in the Western Cape. The survey and the interviews were conducted over a nine-month period from September 2010. After a flurry of publicity that raised hopes among farm workers, especially in the Western Cape, nothing changed.
But anger grew in the agricultural sector, especially because the Human Rights Watch report had revealed nothing new; it amounted, in many ways, to a reiteration of complaints lodged over the years by various groups such as the Black Association of the Agricultural Sector. This group and others consistently called on farmers to “open the books” to reveal whether they were paying a “fair wage”.
The association conducted a two-year survey on 65 farms and also released its results last year. The major complaints listed were not only about pay, but about abuses of the existing labour laws and of rights enshrined in the Constitution. Because, as became clear as the current strike wave erupted, pay demands are merely the symptom of a much deeper-seated malaise and one that has gone untreated despite the desperate pleas of the working poor, on farms, in forests and mines.
At fault are not just mining companies and farm and plantation owners who adopt a cavalier attitude to labour and human rights. Equally guilty are government agencies that do not enforce existing laws and, in the case of farm workers, a department and ministers that establish poverty level minimum wages.
However, agricultural unions and human rights groups tend to agree that, while conditions on many farms in the Western Cape are bad, they are perhaps marginally better on average than the conditions endured by many farm workers in regions of Limpopo, the North West and Mpumalanga. And in the agricultural sector, forestry workers receive the lowest pay and endure the worst conditions.
Yet this is a sector in which the government — through its holdings in state forests — has a direct interest. Like mining and farming, the forestry sector also employs a large number of temporary workers, often hired through labour brokers.
In the De Doorns area of the Hex river valley where the Western Cape’s “Marikana moment” erupted, there are as many casual workers, employed mainly during harvest time, as there are permanent workers. And there are also many unemployed men and women and their families desperately hoping for work.
Over the years the number of work seekers has grown. Like Marikana, widely seen as the trigger for the current unrest, De Doorns also features shack settlements that have mushroomed in recent years. As more and more hungry and desperate people move to these potential sources of work, squalid conditions and competition for jobs increases.
This creates an environment readily exploited by unscrupulous labour brokers and employers. With a surplus of workers desperate for jobs, they are able to drive down already low rates of pay. In the De Doorns area this led to outbreaks of xenophobic violence in 2008 as South African workers turned against migrants from Lesotho and Zimbabwe who they accused of “working cheaper”.
Anger has again burst into the open, although not, this time, aimed at other workers. Farm owners are the target because, the workers complain, many simply flout the labour laws.
This has led to a demand repeated over the years: “Where are the labour inspectors?” This week strikers also asked: “Where were the (established) trade unions as the abuses continued?”
Cosatu is now very much in evidence, but the fact that there has been a high degree of nihilistic anarchy in parts of the Boland this week reveals the absence of established, trade union organisation. However, 11 organisations, including unions, have now come together as the Coalition of Farm Workers to establish some control a least in the De Doorns area.
But as the protests spread it is obvious that there are any number of “ticking time bombs”. They comprise pent up anger, frustration, bitterness and desperation and when they explode, the results are invariably messy, often ugly but amount, effectively, to demands for fairness and democracy.
Obviously, such situations can be taken advantage of, distorted, suppressed or betrayed. But unless the underlying causes are comprehensively dealt with, the anger and resentment may ebb, but perhaps only into even more lethal wells of bitterness, creating bigger time bombs for the future.
…AND SOME THE REASONS WHY
Each member of a farm worker family of five with one breadwinner earning the current minimum wage, exists on just R10 a day. This economic background to the present protests was presented this week by the Cape Town-based Labour Research Services (LRS).
The trade union-linked think tank also points out that farm workers are only marginally better off now than they were seven years ago. In fact, their real minimum wage, is just 3.4 per cent better than it was in 2006.
Between March 2006 and February of this year, the minimum wage, agreed by the minister of labour, increased from R994 a month to R1 503.90 or R7.71 an hour. This amounts to a increase 51.3 per cent over a period when inflation rose by 47.9 per cent (assuming a 6.5 per cent rise for the year to February 2013).
The LRS report, entitled “A farm worker’s wage: R150 is not enough but it is a good place to start,” also points out that in three years over the past seven, minimum farm worker wage increases fell below inflation, resulting in workers “becaming poorer”. Last year, when the minimum wage increased by just R59.25, the buying power of the workers declined by R21 a month.
However, while many wine and fruit farms in the Western Cape rely on casual labour and pay only the minimum wage, there are a substantial number of exceptions. These include at least three wine farms where “worker committees” exist that negotiate regularly with the owners and where wages are markedly higher than the minimum. These farmers and their workers are now up in arms about the apparent knee-jerk reaction of Cosatu in calling for an international boycott of all South African wines.