/ 16 November 2012

Editorial: Farm workers deserve better

Wage disputes have turned into violent protests that are spreading throughout the Western Cape’s agricultural areas.
Wage disputes have turned into violent protests that are spreading throughout the Western Cape’s agricultural areas.

Protests by farm workers started around the small town of De Doorns, where table grapes grow in bright blocks of green beneath the Hex River mountains, and migrant fruit pickers live in abject misery along the N1 highway.

If things became violent quickly, perhaps that is because there is persistent violence in the lives of people who are unemployed for much of the year, and who have seen their limited incomes rapidly eroded by food price increases that far outstrip the official inflation rate. They must battle each other, global commodity markets and their employers for opportunity, even for survival.

Nevertheless, the fact that the protests spread so fast after decades of ­quiescence shocked the country. Trade union federation Cosatu was quick to announce that Marikana had come to the winelands. Of course farming is not mining, and indeed most seasonal farm workers are vastly worse off than rock drillers.

Despite a history of worker militancy in the agricultural industries and townships of Worcester, and in the fruit canneries of Boland towns like Ashton, farm workers have never before been organised on any meaningful scale. It is hard to mobilise people who are dispersed across huge areas, and whose movement is easily controlled by landowners. South Africa has never had a César Chavez.

Unheralded non-governmental organisations
But the Cape countryside is changing. New migrants from even more benighted parts of the country, and from beyond its borders, have swelled the population of small towns. In some areas farmers have sought to move their staff into new housing off farm property, or to create worker villages on a new and larger scale. Mobility has increased dramatically too. Democracy – and the very focused work of some unheralded non-governmental organisations – has no doubt brought a deeper sense of workers' rights.

The violent strikes in the mining sector were in effect a post-union ­phenomenon, driven in part by workers' failing trust in the organisations that have represented them for decades. The Western Cape, by contrast, may be facing a pre-union moment, in which farm workers' emerging capacity to insist on their rights converges with immense economic pressures in the absence of a coherent, large-scale union or political representation.

It is in the absence of that representation, and managed channels for ­protest and negotiation, that incoherent violence flares up. Cosatu, for all its unfortunate rhetoric, is a potential force for stability under these circumstances. Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, who tried implausibly to put herself on the side of the workers this week, is not.

ANC efforts to hitch the protests to an effort to unseat the Democratic Alliance government in the Western Cape are without a shred of political credibility, given the role of the national labour department in setting wages and the cold fact of miserable conditions on farms elsewhere in the country.

The desperately hard question for the farming sector is whether, in the face of immense global price-competition, both sustained levels of employment and wages above starvation level can be provided. The answer is likely to be complex and varied, but it must be faced. It won't help Helen Zille's provincial government, or Jacob Zuma's national one, for each to pretend that the protests are of the other's making. You can't mobilise people who aren't unhappy.