Lee-Roy Chetty
Lee-Roy Chetty

Disgrace in our winelands

Out of South Africa’s nine provinces, the greatest number of farm workers reside in the wealthy and fertile Western Cape.

Despite their fundamental role in the success of our country’s valuable fruit, wine, and tourism industries, farm workers benefit very little, in large part because they are subject to exploitative conditions and human-rights abuses without sufficient protection of their rights.

These abusive practices, which occur to varying degrees on a wide array of farms within the province, are perpetrated by farm owners or farm managers who are subject to regulation by the South African government, both provincially and nationally.

Yet, it seems, both levels of government in our country have failed to protect the rights of farm workers and farm dwellers, or to ensure that farmers throughout the province comply with national law.

The litany of the causes of the recent farm worker strike action in De Doorns and elsewhere in the Western Cape is now clearly in the public domain.

Alienated from the land, a lack of security of tenure, the violation of basic human rights, the perpetuation of a culture of exploitation, a lack of respect and proper treatment, difficulty in accessing basic amenities, long distances to access basic government services and a feeling of isolation as if they are not an integral part of South African society and our democracy.

These are the daily realities of farm workers in our country.

At the root of the problem it seems is a culture of reluctant compliance by some farm owners. Even in instances where farms are thriving as a result of new markets opening post-apartheid and booming export markets.

This lack of transformation and lack of change in mindset is especially evident in the Western Cape where due to local government policies and economic ideology, a greater importance is attached to the concerns of farm owners than the survival and basic human rights of farm workers and dwellers.

This is clearly highlighted by the way certain farm owners construe the industry minimum wage as the maximum wage and the expectation that workers must sacrifice their basic human rights at the altar of economic growth.

When farm owners do make overtures to comply with a decent wage as a result of strike action or other external issues, they then load it with all manner of deductions for rent, electricity, water and sundries, effectively leaving workers with a pittance barely able to feed and clothe themselves not to mention their dependants.

It is important to consider that the concept of sectoral determination of minimum wage in the agriculture sector of our country is based on a worst-case scenario. That being low production and under-performing farms.

However, some farm owners attempt to dupe farm workers into accepting a minimum wage of R69 a day — despite enjoying conditions of growth and relative prosperity.

Thus, using the concept of minimum wage determination to perpetuate poverty, insecurity and hunger on farms around our country.

Surely farm owners in our country must show goodwill and ensure that those who generate wealth for them are able to share in the fruits of their labour and seek ways to transform the current exploitative environment.

The history of farm-worker action and strikes over the past two decades, particularly in the Western Cape is a bitter one and is littered with case histories of ways to circumvent the law, identify loopholes, exploiting technicalities and appointing expensive consultants schooled in the culture of malicious and minimalist compliance perpetuating the hegemony of farm workers.

This has been nowhere more evident than the many cases of security of tenure in which farm dwellers and workers, who for generations have been living on farms, are evicted on some technicality or duped into signing agreements which they don’t fully understand.

It is clear that farm workers in our country cannot be left at the mercy and goodwill of farm owners as the latter with a few exceptions have demonstrated an unwillingness to transform their attitudes and labour practices.

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    • mike venter

      Lee Roy, your entire piece is one sided and with very little facts or figures to back up your allegations and short sighted views. There might be farmers who employ their workers in “exploitative conditions and human rights abuses without sufficient protection of their rights” as you say, but that is not the majority. For you to only take a stab at the farmers come across as old apartheid ANC rhetoric.

      This issue is much more complex than the idea and view you are selling.

      I honestly expected a more neutral and researched piece from you than this biased stance towards ALL farmers. What does that say for your work at the UN as researcher and policy expert in the area of Information Communication Technology? From this piece I can only think that you are also not biased and honest when doing work for them and on your PHD

      Just for the record I do not condone exploiting and human rights abuses and there might be farmers who does that, but do not make the classic mistake of brushing every farmer with the same brush.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The reason the Cape still has farm workers is that the other provinces have got rid of workers and mechanised.

      But after the disgusting power play by Cosatu/ANC trying to take the Cape with bussed in migrant seasonal labour from Swaziland and Lesotho employed through labour brokers, the Cape will probably now also mechanise.

    • The Creator

      Except they will be, mate. They will be. The liquor barons will see to that.

    • amused reader

      @ Mike – Agreed !!

      I live in the winelands, and your comments is spot on. Some farms have excellent conditions and others are appalling.

      What also needs to be considered is that there are many other issues at play. Wine farms particularly struggle to be economically viable, given that the purchase price, which is based on lifestyle choices and driven by non-farmers, means that it is usually impossible to buy a farm and fund it from the business. In many areas more that 50% of the wine farms are up for sale, and sitting without buyers, whilst the owners are having to fund the losses.

      I understand that the outlook for table grape farmers is better.

    • Blogroid

      Logically one should be asking about the conditions of employment of those farmers in other countries with whom we are in competition… In all probability it will emerge that those places employ far fewer workers per unit of output and employ more mechanized production merhods. Te USA for instance employs less than 2% of the national labour force In agriculture and yet produces a large part of the global supply of food.

      What has emerged from all this unrest is that we have to abandon this 19th century feudal approach to farming and mining and use fewer persons doing more work making use of modern technology.

      Neither farming nor mining are in business where they can set prices… These are set by the market. The farmer or the miner must cut their cost coats according to their probable return… Like any other business in a competitive market.

    • Benzo

      @Mike Venter….Thanks for your reply, it saves me the time to do the same. I live nearby the Namaqua wine area.
      As all farming….it is a high risk business with many facets. No need for a semi scientific contribution to blame one side in the conflict. The glorious details will tell you otherwise.

    • Jerome

      This type of rhetoric (and ‘type’ is the kindest possible thing to say about it) is becoming boring and outmoded.

      It is the typical narrative developed to project the resentment of the mediocre onto the competent in a carefully distorted vocabulary.

      Really, words such as exploitative, human-rights, abusive, violation, hegemony and so forth are easily recognizable misdirections which had their heyday in the hysterical Marxist past, and we should be well beyond that, by now.

      Could we have some imaginative, lucid, useful, and above all, truthful contributions about this instead, please?

    • Zeph

      I think you need to follow the profits to understand this issue.
      With fragmentation of the farmers on the one side and consolidation by the supermarket chains on the other it is an uneven playing field. The supermarkets use this to play the farmers against each other.
      The people who criticize need to look at the price they pay for fruit at their supermarket and realize that the farmers get a small fraction of that. The majority goes to the distributor and retailer. So who is squeezing who? Indirectly it is the distributors and the retailers screwing the farmers who have no choice but to screw the farm worker. And who is on top of this chain? Well, it is you the consumer.
      So do not be so quick to pass judgment next time…

    • Zeph

      But I do agree with you that some farmers take advantage of the system and do not do what is right and just. But I also understand the uncertainty in running a business and if you give too much, then a few bad years strike, then they and their workers will have nothing.

    • My thoughts

      “the greatest number of farm workers reside in the wealthy and fertile Western Cape” If wine farming is so wealthy why do you think just about every small/medium size wine farm is up for sale? If you don’t have 1,000 hectares the farmer is running at a loss unless he can export, or have wedding venues, or restaurants, or wine tasting to supplement his “farming” revenue. The wine tax takes a HUGE chunk of a farmers revenue.

      If the government is to control the farmer’s costs, then they need to make informed decisions on farming revenue and all other costs and risks. Without full facts another clothing industry, dairy farming debacle will unfold to the detriment of the workers.

      FACTS WRITERS! FACTS! not hysterical and emotional feelings

    • mike venter

      Just to add it’s obvious Mr Chetty has never been to Europe, if he did he sure never looked at wine prices in supermarkets in Europe or Geneva at his UN offices. Italy produce very good wine at cheaper rates than us. And no, not state subsidised.

      I met an elderly gentlemen on a train few months back in Europe and he was a wine imported into the UK and Scotland for a very long time, now retired. He told me although SA wines are of very good quality and Europeans love it, the pricing forced them to stop importing SA wines.

      He said wines from France, Italy and California was cheaper and had less hassles. With this thoughtless kind of articles it does more harm than good. And that include harm to the poor workers.

    • Sydney

      You misunderstand the economic dynamics.

      What the workers subjectively deserve or what they subjectively need is irrelevant.

      The only reason they are employed at all is because it is cheap labour.

      If wages increased to meet arbitrary levels of acceptability, then the whole reason to employ them the falls away.

      Wine farms in France, for instance, have one or two highly skilled managers and technicians only. Everything else is outsourced from mechanized service providers.

    • Farmer Brown

      @Lee-Roy – you are making huge generalizations. This time you have really duffed it. There are many farmers who pay their staff and care for them really well, they have been targeted by not their own staff but it appears a hired mob that they do not even employ. Then there is the migrant labor issue on top of this, as opposed to the permanent staff and rent a crowd. This topic is far more complex than you have described. There are also different groups (unions/political parties) trying to score political points here that needs to be taken into account. Nothing is cut and dried. Very complex.

    • Marianne de Leuca

      This stereotyping of Western Cape farmers in particular seems to be based on a poorly researched and simplistic understanding of agriculture in the WC. Has the author conducted a survey of how many farmers pay their workers a living wage; how many farmers provide schools, health-care, social work and housing to their workers; and how may farmers make profits as opposed to losses?

    • Momma Cyndi

      Are you sure the majority of farm workers live in the Western Cape? Or are we only speaking about fruit?

      I can’t speak about the various fruit markets but the farmers in the grains industry aren’t exactly ‘booming’.

      One of the biggest ills in any industry in SA is this ‘collective bargaining’ nonsense. It kills off anything close to competition and actually keeps wages down. The other idea that is nonsensical is that an employer now suddenly becomes a surrogate father.

    • The Praetor

      I have been reading the comments by people, who are arguing the nuts and bolts of who are treating their farm workers how, but yet nobody seems to care about the actual workers. Who on earth can live off R69 a day in these times.

      And then there are those who condone this, and want to point to the fact that workers live for free. Well, slaves used to live for free as well, and as far as I am concerned, this is just modern slavery, and is only defended by the commentors because the farm workers are non-whites.If they ad been whies in the same situation there would have been an outcry.

      The Praetor

    • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

      Very well written Lee-Roy!
      The struggle for economic liberation continues in the Western Cape.
      The images of violent protests are reminiscent of our struggle against apartheid.
      R69/day is WORSE than slave wages because at least slaves were minimally housed, clothed and fed by their owners.

      @mike venter
      ” old apartheid ANC rhetoric”
      Please enlighten us on this new term. I just checked Wikipedia which shows that apartheid was a vile white practice that the ANC fought AGAINST, no?

    • Facts People

      The article is a bit verbose but has opened up a discussion that needs solid facts. If indeed the farmers pay for sustainability in the worst years, do they pay bonuses in the good years? If they don’t, shame on them. An easy test of capacity is the number of season tickets, beach houses, overseas holidays, private school educations and luxury vehicles being paid for. One thing I have learned is that “having no money” means different things to different people.

      Historical context is not so simple such that workers can be replaced by capital goods. It is not an option for the business model and historical and legal context – which is reality and part of the package. The workers come from and come with the farm and so it should be. If the farms are over-priced for production viability, it is not the problem of the workers but the buyer. If they cannot be fair and survive, they messed up and should sell for a low price to someone who can. The workers have no options, unlike the owners. Again desperation is all relative. To the owner, it is losing some funny money. To the farm worker it is the roof over their head, their dignity, their life.

    • http://www.rudiernst.com MrGrumpy

      I’m a firm believer in the free market and hold the view that the farms are businesses, subject to market pressures. Surely, if higher wages were sustainable and broadly achievable, workers would simply move to the better paying jobs?

      I do not advocate slave labour, but frankly, the number of beach houses owned by an entrepreneur or CEO should not be the measure against which employees are paid.

      This article is pure emotion and very little accepted economic theory or fact. The workers would have been roused to industrial action by Ehrenreich, Fransman and company, regardless of what they earned, for political reasons.

    • Momma Cyndi

      The Praetor

      The average domestic worker lives off of less than that.
      Take a ‘maid’s’ monthly minimum salary, divide it by 28 (average work days) and give yourself a shock at what it works out to.

      Now I don’t know about you but I honestly feel that the skill set required to be a domestic is a lot higher then picking grapes.

    • mike venter

      Dave you should know, you are a Struggle hero.
      Did you and your ilk not use such sentences in the apartheid?
      LeeRoy:
      ***”Thus, using the concept of minimum wage determination to perpetuate poverty, insecurity and hunger on farms around our country.”***

      This from a young man today, one that should show more understanding, and here he goes and sell us the idea that they, the farmers do this with a plan, like in the old apartheid years. They WANT the people to be poor and hungry.

      ***”…case histories of ways to circumvent the law, identify loopholes, exploiting technicalities and appointing expensive consultants schooled in the culture of malicious and minimalist compliance perpetuating the hegemony of farm workers.”***

      Seriously, they, the farmers employ expensive consultants schooled in culture…seriously?
      This is the kind of talk and rhetoric you and your ilk spewed in the apartheid years. It is 2013, 19 years later and you and Chetty think this is what the farmers do?

      Really Dave, your blind loyal hate is clouding your judgement, and it seems to rub off on young men like Chetty, and he is a UN advisor?

    • Facts People

      “Just picking grapes” is an arrogant ignorant statement which is typical of snobs denigrating workers whose physiques show evidence to the contrary of being lazy. There is more to most jobs that people think.

      The inviolate rules of fairness of free competition as vouched for by mcgrumpy were in fact designed for those in a privileged position.

      I also stand by my comment from experience of working with farm finances that while I sympathise with keeping costs down for lean years, the beach houses, the overseas holidays etc are often the windfalls of great years – when often the workers are given nothing extra ……

      An added point: Taxman: why don’t you check real expenses of farmers. I bet that many a holiday, child’s car at university, food bill for the house, “wages” paid to kids holidaying at Plettenberg bay; wife wages (while at the garden club and salon), overseas “business trip” was and are claimed as legitimate expenses. Of course that would also implicate those great and noble leaders of accounting firms.

      Incidently on that theme, I have heard from insiders in these fancy names accounting firms firms, it is open secret that office expenses are paid out of the fees for supplying minutes for compulsory company meetings that never actually happen…. But hey, like the financial crisis and the free rules gone on about by mcgrumpy, there is justice and justice; there is financial need (can’t afford a new car) and financial need -those who end up…

    • John

      I am not sure where you obtained your figures from regarding the numbers employed. But to say that the Western Cape has the highest number of farm workers you are blatantly lying. Not misleading but lying. Limpopo, Mpumulanga have far more farm workers than the Western Cape does. Look at the Department of Labour figures.

      So based on this lie, the rest of the article becomes simple rhetoric with no substance. The real debate should be around the pricing of labour. What comes into this is the price that the farmer obtains at his gate for the product vs what the consumer gets to pay.

    • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

      @mike venter
      “Did you and your ilk not use such sentences IN THE APARTHEID?”
      Whaaat? LOL
      btw. the United Nations did declare your apartheid a “crime against humanity”, so Chetty as a UN advisor, rightly represents the judgement of the UN (world opinion) to a great extent. The apartheid mindset in the WCape, where blacks (Africans, Coloureds and Indians) continue to be marginalized with slave wages, is indeed a disgrace in this day and age!

    • mike venter

      @facts people, you also need to see this in perspective.

      Do you now want to dictate to the farmer or business how much they are allowed to make as profit? They carry the risk of business, the losses, the workers carry no risk, they get their salaries regardless of the owner making a loss. The owner answers to the bank on his million rand overdraft.

      It is easy to look at his holiday home, but that is reward for being a business owner. If you do not allow a business owner making a profit there are no incentive for him to start the business in the first place.

      Try and leave emotional commie style solutions out of these kind of debates.

    • Graham

      @ Dave

      “continue to be marginalized with slave wages, is indeed a disgrace in this day and age!”

      Indeed, any government in this day and age who sets slave wages should be held to account.

    • mike venter

      @Dave, must I draw you some pictures?

      In the apartheid years the ANC and other communist members made use of those wording. At the time is was sweet and it achieved the intended. Also include words from neo-colonialist to imperialist and the likes.

      Today 19 years later that kind of comrade cadre talk is over and done with. Society has moved on and you will alienate more people with that talk than convincing them onto your side of the debate.

    • Chopper4

      @Dave, you are a fool of note. Is sectorial determination not done by the National Government? I wonder when they made the minimum wage for domestics were every household that employs a domestic at that meeting? Did the homeowners have a chance to comment on the minimum wage? If the domestics have a problem with minimum wage is that the employer’s problem or government?

      The same here with the farm workers, it is the National government in cohorts with COSATU and other Unions that got to that figure. Not the farmers. Therefore the fact that the farm workers are unhappy is not the fault of the farmer he/she is following government gazetted laws.

      The farmers should not be held responsible for minimum wage disputes that the government caused.

      They are unskilled, just because they were dished out a horrible life is not the fault of the farmer…most of the time it is the farmers that pay towards schooling for the children so they have better opportunities than their parents…but of course everyone turns a blind eye to that. What about food, transport, rent, electricity. water and everything else the farmer provides? If you work all that out then you will find out the true COE per farm worker.

      I wonder if Chetty got some skelm money for writing this anti-DA article? We all heard that Zuma said you will prosper if you are with the ANC…

      Dave the fact that you travel around wikipedia is enough proof that you probably know nothing and are a propaganda gobbler…

    • http://www.xen.co.za Hugh Robinson

      As One who has worked on the Inlaws Grape farm in Bilboa Spain the skill involved is highly limited. The whole family get together once year for the harvest the grapes then twice more for cropping and tender care.

      The demands made by these farm workers for the skills sold to the farmer are grossly out of kilter with the demand.

      I firmly believe that this strike and the related destruction of farm property is aimed at destabilising the WC. Like the mines, when farmers call it a day who is going to employ the unemployable.

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      Conflating minimum wage with the wage that workers actually receive much?

      Considered the fact that most of the workers are migrant workers, hired temporarily on a season by season basis at all? Therefore, the notion of land and access to amenities is a canard. By their nature, migrant workers are day labourers and do not have ‘access to land’. They would, of course, have this, if government starts dishing out its vast tracts of land to the previously disadvantaged, starting with full title ownership of RDP houses.

      This blog post is extremely biased and does not even attempt to give a fair and accurate presentation of the situation in the Western Cape. Let alone the fact that many farmers do not even know the so-called strikers who were instigated and imported rent-a-crowd style.

    • spanyora

      Things will get really ugly before they get better, there is no denying the fact that the status quo will bring the country to its knees.