Farmworkers are among the most poorly paid and policy neglected sectors of the working class, despite them producing the bulk of the food. About 200-million agricultural workers worldwide are chronically undernourished. Farmworkers have been excluded from the minimum wage stipulations, and earn R18 per hour or R3 000 per month, but only for permanent workers on farms. They live under dire working conditions and still face structural inequities.
Commercial farmers have come under intense media and political scrutiny for the way they treat farmworkers. In 2012, a three-month strike that began on farms around De Doorns, a small agricultural town 180km from Cape Town, spread to more than 25 other towns. It led to an increase in wages from R69 a day to R105 a day. In 2019, farmworkers are again striking in the Western Cape. The demands of farmworker strikes in Grabouw are similar to those of 2012: pay increases, better accommodation and labour brokering.
History has shown that each time farmworkers’ demands are met, farmers try to cut permanent jobs in the sector and bring in casual labour. The 2019 Grabouw strike may also lead to less farmers employing permanent labour.
Increased mechanisation and technologies on farms may also cause job losses. In South Africa, for example, there are now about 680 000 farmworkers, in comparison with the 1.9-million farmworkers in the 1960s.
The government is embracing the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and has set up a commission to ensure that South Africa is “best placed” to compete with global players. Arguably this will ensure that the local agricultural sector continues to compete successful in the world market, but it will have adverse impacts for farmworkers and organising in South Africa. Trends in developed economies like the US show that farmworker employment has decreased due to mechanisation and this will likely worsen during the 4IR.
Commercial Farmers in South Africa will likely be keen to embrace 4IR, as it will give them new opportunities to substitute labour and buy machinery that will not strike, challenge evictions, or ask for fair wages.
Farmworkers may be evicted as they will not be of any further perceived use, or further exploited. The revolution will favour technologically skilled individuals, and the children of farmworkers, in remote areas, may never be able to acquire these new skills.
What will the 4IR mean for unionism?
The ANC-led government has largely favoured a neoliberal agenda, which is at odds with the socialist one supported by unions. This mentality will guide the roll-out of 4IR in South Africa, leading to a further weakening of unions. They are already in a precarious position, and may continue to struggle to survive unless they reinvent themselves.
Only an estimated 12% of farmworkers are unionised. The low rate of organisation means that farmworkers are continuously punished for striking by farmers, who subvert agreed accords without repercussion. Unions will need to decide how they deal with 4IR, and learn from unions in other parts of the world where job losses result from 4IR.
The Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers union (CSAAWU) has begun to organise casual workers and set up advice offices that will play a role in ensuring a constant presence and support for farmworkers. This will likely be a key element of organising in the future, where farmworkers and labourers will mostly take up casual jobs rather than permanent during and post 4IR.
In light of the above we recommend that:
1. Government must conduct an impact assessment of digitalisation and its impact on farmworkers. New technology must to be registered, and particularly harmful technology banned. Government must put in place programmes that will retrain farmworkers, who must learn to use digital technologies and capacitate themselves for productive employment.
2. Unions need to adapt to the changing system. Trade unions have a responsibility to organise rural communities, research and educate society about 4IR and hold government accountable for any actions detrimental to the working class. Broad alliances between unions, rural movements and progressive nongovernmental organisations are needed.
3. Unions can no longer afford to ignore the casual labour force. They represent an inconsistent source of subscriptions and support base, but this shift is necessary in order to adapt to the changing capitalist landscape and move towards the sustainability of unions.
4. Pre and post 1994 some unions have aligned themselves with political parties. In some instances alliances are necessary, but these must be assessed carefully.
5. A moratorium on farm evictions will ensure that farmworkers will still have access to land and housing. Increasingly, farm dwellers should get organised.