Sour grapes for farmers, workers
18 Jan 2013 11:38 | Lynley Donnelly
It is harvest time in De Doorns in the Hex River Valley. But torched vehicles, police blockades and furious crowds hurling rocks amid intermittent storms of rubber bullets have become synonymous with the town at the epicentre of the farmworker strikes in the Western Cape.
Workers' demands are clear. They want R150 a day, not the R69 minimum wage that the national sectoral determination for farmworkers stipulates.
But the reasons for the violence behind the strikes, the extent that wage demands blur with a legacy of inequality, and the ability of the agricultural industry to cope with the changes that market forces and workers are demanding of it are more difficult to understand.
De Doorns is situated in the Breede Valley municipality, which includes Touwsrivier, Worcester and Rawsonville and is famed for its table grapes.
Farmers in the area say that doubling the wage bill could cost the industry jobs and aggravate problems. But non-governmental organisations that work with farming communities believe there is scope to improve things, including increasing salaries and providing farmworkers with their own land to improve food security.
Michael Laubscher, chairperson of the Hex River Valley Table Grape Association and a fifth-generation farmer, said that farms in the valley generally pay a basic wage of anywhere between R70 to R127 a day.
On top of this, workers can earn attendance bonuses of between R5 and R30 a day, daily bonuses of R5 to R30 for meeting targets, and an end-of-season bonus.
The rates vary from farm to farm but Laubscher said farmers pay what they can afford, in a context where farmers in the valley made a R5 loss on each 4.5kg carton of grapes during the last season.
Increasing the minimum daily wage to R150 will push farms over the edge, he said.
There are about 16 000 people working in the valley. Laubscher estimated that 5 000 workers live on farms and the remaining 11 000 come from areas such as Touwsrivier and Worcester or two informal settlements in the De Doorns area – Stofland and Sandhills, more commonly known as "GG camp".
The area also has a high level of migrant labour from outside South Africa's borders and from other provinces, including the Eastern Cape.
About half of the 16 000 workers are permanent, said Laubscher, and the other half are seasonal.
The violence accompanying the strike and the national government's perceived failure to intervene clearly frustrates Laubscher.
"There is no way I can run a productive business when I don't have the rights of an ordinary citizen," he said.
Farms in the valley take on workers from September to April, when they begin preparing grapes for harvest and later harvesting them.
Services to permanent workers
Laubscher estimated that farmers have already begun to use 20% less labour because of the strikes.
Many farmers have begun to use farming methods that are less labour intensive, such as using chemicals to weed fields rather than have workers do it.
A number of farmers also provide services to permanent workers, said Laubscher. In his case there is a crèche on his farm for workers' children and he provides employees with a funeral policy. He charges for electricity, but at 35c a unit – he pays 80c a unit.
Laubscher said that a good number of farmworkers are in debt to credit providers such as retail furniture stores. A number of his own staff have had garnishee orders attached to their salaries and he has had confrontations with sheriffs arriving on his property in search of his staff.
"Those guys are killing the farmworkers," said Laubscher.
But when families do not have the money to meet basic daily needs it is no surprise they take on credit to survive, said Carmen Louw, programme co-ordinator at the Women on Farms Project, a non-governmental organisation that works with women in commercial agriculture.
The project renewed its work last year in the De Doorns area, particularly in and around the informal settlements, focusing on female seasonal workers.
Louw estimated that about 70% of the workers in the valley are seasonal workers and the majority are women. She said that abuse is still rife in the sector and seasonal workers are the most vulnerable.
The growth of informal settlements in the Breede Valley area is linked to the growing evictions, both legal and illegal, of workers from farms, said Louw.
In a study done in 2011 on the growth of an informal settlement in nearby Rawsonville, about 68% of respondents said they had been evicted from nearby farms. Many of these are "constructed evictions" that see farmers cut off electricity or water supplies in a bid to force farmworkers and their dependants to move, said Louw. She suspects a similar trend in areas such as De Doorns, with farmworkers increasingly living "off farm".
When they move from a farm, workers often become seasonal employees, who are dependent on labour brokers for work, a phenomenon that has blossomed in the region.
Farmers prefer this system to avoid meeting labour legislation requirements and leave these responsibilities in the brokers' hands, she said.
However, the brokers are often unregistered and do not provide items such as payslips, records of overtime or employment contracts.
Laubscher said that there was a place for labour broking in the sector, but he is adamant that it has to be properly regulated and controlled.
Farms can afford to pay R150 a day
Reputable labour brokers help farmers when they need immediate access to extra workers, such as in the event of bad weather, he said.
There is a low rate of union representation in the region – estimated at 6%. This has called into question the motives of participants in the strike, in which children have taken part.
Louw said that ordinary community members may have joined striking farmworkers, but "the chances are" that strike participants are either former farmworkers, seasonal workers or people for whom farming is the only likely source of employment.
Farms in the De Doorns region can afford to pay R150 a day, she said, because the grapes grown there are predominantly aimed at the lucrative export market and have "nothing to do with food security" for the country.
"If this is not resolved now, farmworkers will try again and again, until they are given a deal that satisfies them," she said.
The vital statistics of De Doorns are difficult to pin down. The mayoral councillor responsible for agriculture, rural development and disaster management, Elsa Jordaan, referred all questions to Breede Valley mayor Basil Kivedo. But neither he nor his press office responded to questions.
The municipality's integrated development plan for 2012 to 2017 reveals an unemployment level of less than 18%. Young people between the ages of 15 and 19 made up 41.7% of the unemployed. These were measured in 2007.
Accurate employment statistics
However, the 2011 census puts the Breede Valley municipality's unemployment rate at 14.4%, down from 19.7% in 2001. About 40% of residents have some secondary schooling and about 25% have reached matric, according to the census data. Because the municipality includes Worcester, Rawsonville, De Doorns and Touwsrivier, accurate employment statistics for De Doorns are not available.
A recent study by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy examined agricultural wages in the country and highlighted the pressure felt on both sides of the divide. The "dilemma" facing farmers and farmworkers was potentially "highly disruptive" to the industry and far better policy was needed to manage the resulting conflict, said the report.
It said there was growing evidence that commercial farmers had "shifted from permanent workers to using more seasonal workers and that many people who used to live and work on farms no longer do so."
This was principally a result of investment uncertainty due to speculation over property rights.
The Extension of Security of Tenure Act, aimed at protecting the tenure rights of farmworkers, and related legislation has supposedly played a role in this trend, said the report.
Simultaneously, labour legislation has provided motivation for farmers to increasingly use the services of labour brokers "in an attempt to avoid the hassle factor that comes with employing large numbers of workers for short periods of time", it noted.
The bureau's research highlighted the plight of seasonal workers, who earn, at most, R84 a day.
It found that there was scope to increase the minimum wage, but an increase of R20 a day, or R104, meant that "typical farms will be unable to cover their operating expenses and hence not be able to pay back borrowings or to afford entrepreneurs' remuneration".
But the real problem, according to the report, was that even at wages of R150 a day that seemed unaffordable to farmers, "most households cannot provide the nutrition that is needed to make them food secure".
To add to the urgency of the situation, structural adjustments would take place within the sector. These adjustments include an increase in mechanisation and the consolidation of farms to cope with the push towards higher wages. The shift from an industry dependent on cheap, unskilled labour to one with fewer but more skilled and better paid workers has already begun, said the report.
The burnt vineyards in De Doorns are evidence of how painful these changes will be.
View the original online publication here