The rain and chilly weather did not deter the farm workers who took to the streets of Cape Town on Saturday 21 September from demanding better living and working conditions. The farm workers assembled on the Grande Parade in the city centre and marched with their allies to the Norwegian embassy.
Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) president Ryno Filander says it showed that farm workers are tired of working under dire conditions.
A farm worker himself, Filander, 36, was born on a farm. His grandfather and father were farm workers. “It’s a cycle from generation to generation.” He said farm workers across the country are “exploited” and that “it will come to a point either we die in these conditions or we fight for these conditions to change”.
“We are also here today to appeal to consumers in Scandinavia, Europe and South Africa to become directly involved against the daily inhumane treatment of workers. You are complicit in our suffering. Large corporations have created supply chains that enrich its executives at the expense of farm workers and farm dwellers,” read the memorandum that the farm workers handed to a representative of Norway and Sweden at the end of the march.
Monopolies use their power to set terms and prices for the farmers who grow their fruit and make their wine, said the memorandum. The union said this leads to low pay, long hours, harassment and intimidation from farmers. In addition, it contributes to poverty, debt, evictions, exposure to lethal pesticides and the denial of basic labour and human rights.
“Farm workers are isolated from each other and from the larger economy. Because of this isolation, they are vulnerable. They have to rely on racist and sexist farm owners,” said the memorandum.
“For farm workers, the daily struggle is that they are not living on farms, they are surviving. Because of the R18 an hour [wage],” said Filander. He added that the owner of the farm on which he works has two dogs that are “treated better than a human being on a farm”.
Filander spoke about gender inequality on some farms, where women are not permitted housing contracts or the right to stay on the farm. This right, however, is extended to men.
“When the male dies, her [his spouse or partner] living rights automatically fall away. She has to be evicted or, in other cases, she has to take another man who can provide for her.” If the the CSAAWU does not have a presence on the farm, then the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) comes into play. This act “deals with the eviction of lawful occupiers or occupiers of rural or peri-urban land whose occupation was previously lawful, subject to certain conditions.”
Another stumbling block is the gender pay gap. “I don’t know why, but they pay us less than men … while we do the same work as men,” said Melissa Augasta, 25. “As women, we get paid R2 800 and the men get R3 900,” added Liezel Conradie, 37. She said it makes no difference whether the woman is a permanent or seasonal worker.
Health and benefits
Health and safety is also a big issue on farms. Protective safety gear measures are not followed, for example. “We [men] get it. And women don’t get it,” said Filander. “When you talk to bosses about that they say no, the pesticides or chemicals we are spraying are not harmful to people.”
“Working conditions are very bad,” said Conradie. “There are no toilets in the vineyard. We have to sit in the wine yard to do our stuff. When we are eating, they always come and tell us our break is half an hour. But they will come early to tell us we must finish eating because it’s time to work … They don’t treat us like people.”
She said workers don’t have access to fresh water while working on the farm and have to bring enough water with them to last a shift. “They can’t fetch water. It’s not allowed during working hours.” The workers are expected to replenish their water supply in their own time, during the breakfast break from 8am to 8.30am or lunch from 12.30pm to 1.30pm.
Augasta’s husband was suspended after a disagreement with his boss, now they have stopped selling the couple electricity. To make matters worse, there’s no water at home and Augasta is expected to use dam water. “They give us dirty water there. We don’t want to drink the water and now we must buy water because our children are getting sick from that.”
Augasta and Conradie said they don’t get compensation from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). Flanders said workers are entitled to only four years of UIF benefits, regardless of how long they have worked on the farm.
Because the work is seasonal, Thandazwa Tafane-Mfo, 33, can only work from January to April. “My job is dependent on the season and there’s nowhere else I can get a job until the season starts.” She gets paid R1 600 a fortnight.
Family responsibilities make it more difficult for her financially, as her mother in the Eastern Cape relies on her wages. “I take R600 and send it to my mother. Then R500 to buy groceries and another R500 to spend on school items, like a child needing school shoes.”
In the off season, she becomes a street trader, selling fruit to earn a living. When asked how much she makes doing this, Tafane-Mfo said “it depends on how often customers come. It’s possible to go home with R50 and other times it’s R200.”
Having worked for three generations of farmers from the same family, Pieter Jonkers, 59, said he was told that “he’s too old to work … I came in that farm when I was 22 years old. A young man.” He has worked on the farm for 35 years and said he has no benefits and that UIF does not cover his years of service.
Filander said evictions are also a major issue. When a child of farm workers turns 18, they are evicted unless they pay rent, he explained.
“This fight is for my children and other farm workers’ children. So that it could not be a cycle because you are a farm. Your father was a farm and your children automatically farm workers.”