Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Farmers and workers hamstrung by state

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.

Workers’ conditions
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.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

DA’s egregious sexual harassment case finally begins

The party is accused of protecting a councillor, who’s also implicated in R1.2m graft

The ANC, DA and EFF ‘oblivious’ to climate crisis —...

The Climate Justice Charter Movement has critiqued the manifestos of the main parties contesting the local government elections and found them ‘shallow’

More top stories

Former spy boss Fraser objects to Zondo’s nomination as chief...

The former director general of intelligence’s character assassination of the deputy chief justice is straight out of the Zuma playbook

Special Investigating Unit to oppose efforts to reject Mkhize report

Former health minister Zweli Mkhize seeks relief to declare the SIU’s conduct against him ‘unlawful and unconstitutional

Bird flu outbreak on Dyer Island causing mass deaths

The island hosts the vulnerable African penguins, endangered bank cormorant and roseate tern

Countries bear cross-border responsibility for harmful effects of climate change,...

The UN committee has been accused of ‘turning its back’ on the children who filed a groundbreaking legal complaint with it against five countries
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×