Opinion

A voice for farm workers

Tina Joemat-Pettersson

Landmark summit aims to help forestry, fisheries and agriculture workers escape the poverty trap.

Last week, on July 27 and 28, hundreds of workers from our farms, harbours and forests gathered in Somerset West to shape their future. This was a culmination of nine mini-summits that have been attended by thousands of workers throughout the nine provinces.

Informing the summit’s proceedings was a consolidated report of the provincial summits. It identifies issues for a common agenda for all stakeholders, which include:

  • The widespread lack of respect and proper treatment by farmers;

  • Limited access to government services, especially health and safety;

  • The widespread lack of proper housing fit for human habitation and of ablution facilities;

  • In some instances, the payment of rent for houses and accommodation on farms; and

  • The long distances that have to be covered to reach the nearest town.

The poverty trap is compounded by limited access to high school education, resulting in a community that is cut off from the rest of the country. Because of the dispersed spatial location of farms, as well as forestry and fishing businesses, workers live and work on privately owned property, isolated from one another. In most cases they are dependent on the farmers to provide their basic services, because most owners do not allow government officials to enter their premises.

Most of these workers depend on the sectoral determination to receive a minimum wage and other minimum standards. Because of the nature of farming, forest work and fishing, which takes place far away from concentrated habitats such as cities and towns, it is not easy to organise these workers.

As a result, working conditions are not in line with International Labour Organisation and World Health Organisation standards or with national labour legislation.

Despite these challenges, the government is committed to the creation of an agricultural, fisheries and forestry sector that offers a future to all those involved in it. We would like to see an inclusive sector with a dynamic contribution by workers, as well as a corresponding benefit.

In trying to address these challenges, we recall the perspectives and commitment made at the National Land Summit of 2005. The summit called, among other resolutions, for a moratorium on evictions and for effective legislation to combat this. It argued for farm workers to be given homes and land for their own use on the farms where they work and live.

The same urgency was expressed and adopted in the last Cosatu congress, which “call[ed] for a mini-alliance summit on the plight of farm workers and farm dwellers, preceded by an internal Cosatu position-making workshop”.

This is our response. We are ready to act—not from above, but with the people themselves. One of the cardinal precepts informing this government of the fourth Parliament is not only a commitment to effective government but also attention to the style of government - a different approach to governing. Therefore, as we raise the profile of the most vulnerable section of our people, we want to apply this approach to them.

Through this summit we aim to achieve four things:

  • To communicate very strongly and clearly that this government was not just electioneering when it committed itself to prioritising the interests of the poorest of the poor. We are sending an unambiguous message to all farm, forest and fisher folk that in us, in this government, they have a dependable ally;

  • To develop a common programme, with the workers, that will have clear goals, clear tasks and a common action plan for monitoring and evaluation. This year’s summit is about consulting, crystallising and concretising a joint programme. Next year will be about reporting what the government will have done to respond to these concerns;

  • To give a voice to farm workers. We want them to speak out. Let them tell us what we have done and not done for them since the democratic breakthrough in 1994. Let them tell us how, together, we can solve and address their problems; and

  • There is only one future for agriculture, forestry and fisheries—an inclusive rural and coastal economy. Everyone has a place in it.

Tina Joemat-Pettersson is the minister for agriculture, forestry and fisheries

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