Women on Farms

Fatima Shabodien, from the Women on Farms Project in South Africa put out this important article in the Cape Times earlier this week. Reposted below, in case you’ve difficulty accessing it through the link above….

Farmworkers need dignified home in South Africa

November 19, 2007 Edition 1

Fatima Shabodien

The movement of many farmworkers daily across considerable distances is relatively new. Ten years ago, there was only a fraction of the number of trucks carrying farm- workers that we have today.

This development is located within the context of a broader drive by farmers to deregulate labour and tenure on farms in the face of the introduction of laws aimed at protecting these rights. It is in this context that we must try to make sense of the tragic loss of farmworkers’ lives in the recent spate of road accidents.

Between 1994 and 2002, the agricultural labour force shrank by more than 22% as a result of casualisation linked to evictions.

Historically, most work on farms was performed by a permanent on-farm workforce, with 75% of all jobs held by men. Today, as much as 60% of work in agriculture is temporary, and two-thirds of these temporary jobs are held by women.

In absolute terms, women occupy more jobs in commercial agriculture today than at any point in our history. But the terms under which temporary women workers toil are much more tenuous than those of permanent, usually male, workers.

Women largely work without formal contracts, are contracted through the fast growing network of unregistered labour brokers, have no access to non-wage benefits such as pension or sick and maternity leave, are not given protective clothing when working with dangerous pesticides and, on average, get paid less than men even when performing the same functions.

As is the case in other industries, such as mining, where the site of work is far from residential areas, the provision of farm housing has always been a production input cost and not a social subsidy. In other words, without housing for farm- workers, farming would not have been possible. And it is based on this rationale of farmworker housing as an economic input cost, that farmworkers’ houses were subsidised by the apartheid state as part of its broader system of subsidies to agriculture.

In a context where the South African government is mandated to deliver houses to the poor, farmers are pouncing on the opportunity to externalise what is inherently a production cost.

To make sense of this absurdity, we only have to imagine a situation in which employers of live-in domestic workers demand that government take responsibility for providing accommodation for all domestic workers. Interestingly, the same trend has not developed in the equally hard-hit mining sector.

The economic reasons offered by farmers for evictions do not hold up under scrutiny. The only national survey ever conducted on farm dweller evictions, by Nkuzi Development Associates in 2005, provides compelling evidence that the motive behind evictions is political and not economic.

Before the introduction of every new law aimed at enhancing farmworker tenure and labour rights, there was a huge spike in evictions as farmers pre-emptively struck. No link could be found between eviction numbers and economic factors such as exchange rate fluctuations, wine gluts or droughts.

Before the transition to democracy, there were no laws governing the relationship between worker and farmer. In a system bearing all the hallmarks of a traditional feudal relationship, the farmer assumed the role of the ultimate patriarch, ruling every aspect of workers’ lives.

Within the framework of paternalism, the farmer is the father and, by extension, the workers the children. Once the we-are-one-big-family myth was shattered through the introduction of laws explicitly aimed at protecting farmworkers (in most cases, from farmers), the psychological dimension of betrayal farmers experienced must have been severe.

If is, therefore, no coincidence that one of the most frequent responses by farmers to workers’ requests in the post-1994 context was to “gaan vra vir Mandela” (“go and ask Mandela”).

Farmers are merely responding to workers in much the same way as a father would to rebellious teenagers, cracking the whip.

Without any significant systems of law enforcement and impact monitoring by the government, the introduction of this range of well-intentioned laws led to the perverse outcome of further erosion of worker rights.

Farmers are, of course, arguing that they are responding in much the same way as farmers in Chile or New Zealand. To be fair, there is no doubt commercial agriculture is facing a number of challenges stemming from South Africa’s signing of the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Agriculture in 1994 and the rapid liberalisation of the sector that followed.

Fortunes have varied greatly across the various agricultural commodities. Some farmers have been struggling and others have ridden the wave of South Africa’s triumphant return to global markets.

Yet, we have seen no fluctuations in the fortunes of workers: working conditions have been in a steady downward spiral across all commodities, with a few exceptions.

The exploitation of workers pre-dates South Africa’s return to global markets. And there is no evidence to suggest a farmworker would be any better off should her employer get a better deal for his products on the world market.

There is, thus, no contesting the reality of globalisation and its impact on the livelihoods of the poor all over the world.

In the agricultural sector, it has had far-reaching consequences across the South, especially for women in the agricultural global value chains. As profits become increasingly concentrated near the top end of these value chains, the risks associated with this kind of export-driven agriculture are pushed down this chain.

And it is undoubtedly true that the growing army of casual women workers with no long-term security and weak bargaining positions carry the brunt of these unjust labour and trade regimes.

It is this system that leaves workers with no option other than to board the bus even when the driver is clearly inebriated, or to be loaded with indignity on the back of an open truck in much the same way as cattle are.

This system that has necessitated the daily movement of workers across great distances at great risk only to farmworkers has been created by farmers. It would not have been possible had it not been for the relentless drive to move worker families off farms and then replace them with contract workers.

The Faure, Piketberg and De Doorns accidents have all been attributed to different factors. However, there are striking characteristics that link these tragedies.

All the workers involved in these accidents were casual farmworkers contracted through unregistered labour brokers, a strategy increasingly employed by farmers to evade legal labour obligations towards workers. Most of those who died were women.

None of the workers on any of the vehicles had legal labour contracts as required by law, and no one was, therefore, insured. It is highly unlikely any of the families will receive any kind of compensation from the employers beyond a symbolic contribution to the funeral costs, although they have lost a precious loved one and a vital breadwinner.

Just like the scourge of evictions sweeping farm lands, these accidents are a small window into the everyday struggles farmworkers face during any given day’s work. They are located in the daily attack on the human dignity of close to six million people we call the South African farmworker community.

If the Western Cape is indeed to be a home for all, we will have to find urgent ways of making it a safe and dignified home for its farmworkers, too.

Let us use this moment of crisis for a province that is home to the largest number of farmworkers in South Africa as a clarion call to urgent action. Let this needless loss of precious lives not be in vain.

# Shabodien is the director of the Women on Farms Project, an NGO focused on the rights of women who live and work on farms in South Africa (www.wfp.org.za).

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