Fundamental shifts in South Africa’s agricultural economy are driving farm employment patterns and working conditions. A report released this week by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shed light on some of the forces that have contributed to tension in the sector, leading to the farmworkers’ strike in the Western Cape in 2012.
The research, which took two years to complete, found that the main pressures faced by farmers include market deregulation and trade liberalisation.
The integration of South African producers into global food value chains and the state’s efforts to legislate the relationship between producers and labour are also constraints.
Farmers, it found, have responded by leaving agriculture or by mechanising and restructuring their workforces, leading to job losses and the increased use of casual labour.
The research, led by Margareet Visser of the University of Cape Town’s labour and enterprise policy research group and Stuart Ferrer of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s agricultural policy research unit, found that the state’s actions have exacerbated the problems faced by workers and farmers.
Vic van Vuuren, director of the ILO in South Africa, said the report aimed to give “up-to-date, balanced assessments” of workers’ conditions. It was initiated by Stone Sizani, the former chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on rural development and land reform.
The report said the state’s deregulation of the sector and withdrawal of subsidies means that farmers have become price-takers in global value chains dominated by large retailers. At the same time, state policy efforts on land reform and labour have increased pressure on farmers, who “pass the risks on” to workers.
The report said trade liberalisation and deregulation have weakened producers’ bargaining power, putting them “on the defensive to protect their dwindling profit margins”.
It said the government’s “prevaricating statements” on land reform have further increased producers’ perceptions of their own vulnerability, causing them to increase casualisation and make “further cost savings by recruiting workers off-farm”.
The report said the sector’s financial position has been declining in recent years, and the average solvency of farms has declined to the worst levels in 30 years as debt growth outstripped asset growth.
Masked debt distribution
Ferrer cautioned that the average figure may have masked the distribution of debt levels. New farms such as those run by land reform beneficiaries may be more highly indebted than older, more established farms.
The report said the government must give more support to workers and farmers, and should bolster the collective bargaining power of producers and workers to ensure a more equitable flow of value down agricultural value chains.
The study offers suggestions to address the sector’s problems. To support farmers, it said, the government should take a “value-chain approach” aimed at boosting their position in the market. Proposals included opening up new export markets, eliminating nontariff trade barriers imposed by other countries, and considering exempting exporting producers from the Competition Act “to allow them to collectively set floor prices that would incorporate a living wage for farmworkers”.
When it comes to farmworkers, it suggests adapting labour legislation to better protect seasonal workers, providing labour rights training for workers and using the off season to offer seasonal workers employment in public works programmes.
The research said a positive spin-off of the De Doorns strike was the realisation that producers’ and workers’ fortunes were intertwined.
It said the government must become part of the dialogue and reshape the macroeconomic environment to enable producers and workers to move forward.