Injured farm workers need justice and compensation

Many labourers in the Sundays River Valley have never seen a cent after suffering debilitating pain and even disability from accidents while at work. A non-profit trust wants to change this.

Working outdoors in an orchard of orange trees or on a game farm in a beautiful valley is not as pleasant as it sounds. Workers on some of these farms in the Eastern Cape have horrific stories of their experience there. These workers have shared their tales with the Khanyisa Education and Development Trust, a Port Elizabeth-based non-profit organisation that is determined to ensure that those who were injured on duty will finally be compensated in 2021.  

The organisation, which works closely with the Sundays River Valley Farm Workers’ Forum to organise workers on citrus and game farms in the area, has compiled a list of about 15 people it believes are owed compensation under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act.

According to the act, employers must report all injuries in the workplace to the compensation commissioner within seven days, and in the case of an occupational disease, within 14 days. They must also supply the medical records of the injured or ill employee. The commissioner then considers the claims for compensation and how much will be paid. The dependents of workers who die from injuries or diseases can also claim compensation. No claims are paid if they are made more than a year after the injury or death, or after the disease is diagnosed. 

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But Simphiwe Dada, director of the trust, says employers are flouting the law by not reporting accidents and injuries at work. In other cases, the accidents are reported but the workers never hear from the compensation commissioner again. As a result, some workers have not received compensation several years after their accidents.

“Our list of people who got injured on duty shows a situation where this has been happening for a number of years,” Dada said. “Such accidents are brutal and some people have even died. We began to undertake this work because we have observed the fact that commercial farmers do not respect the rights of workers. There is no justice on farms. 

“Some commercial farmers are getting rich, making billions of rands [with] citrus exports and without workers benefitting. Instead, workers are losing. So we have got to ask the question: who is benefitting from the workers’ blood and sweat? It is clearly the big bosses.”

Accidents and disability

The list compiled by Dada’s organisation includes two workers who each lost a leg in accidents at work, another whose finger was amputated by a machine, one who lost toes, one who fell from an unsafe stepladder and several who were injured in vehicle accidents. 

“I was employed by a contractor on a big game reserve,” said a worker who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing they wouldn’t be hired again in the Sundays River Valley if they are seen to be complaining. “We were transported to work in a bakkie. The driver took a very sharp turn one day and I fell out [and landed on] my head. I was unconscious for three days. 

“My sister told me they took me to the hospital in the back of the bakkie. Luckily, I am not permanently disabled. There was no compensation, no forms were ever filled in. I doubt the game reserve was ever even told about the accident.”

12 December 2020: Two farm dwellers greet each other outside their mud houses on Dunbrody Estates citrus farm in Kirkwood. Many workers in the area have been exploited, humiliated and retrenched during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Vukile Yona, 36, a resident of Manqindini in Paterson, began working on farms as a youngster after leaving school in grade 9. In 2003, while employed on a citrus farm near Kirkwood, he had an accident as he was picking oranges. 

“One of my friends got tired that morning. He asked me to assist him but I didn’t have a safety belt. I jumped on top of the machine that grinds oranges. While working on the third block, the spinning sharp metal underneath, which I didn’t notice, caught a part of my leg,” Yona said. 

“I could not believe it when I saw my leg a few metres away from where I was standing. I cried once and lost energy. Blood sprayed the tractor. The guy who was the driver ran to the other side of the farm to call the senior foreman. On arrival, he stopped at a distance. He was shocked too. It appeared that the shaft was not tightened properly. 

“That was the day I will never forget in my entire life. I have since been disabled, for 17 years. Now I wear a prosthetic leg but it is damaged and I cannot afford to replace it. I depend on a disability grant to feed my family.”

Injuries and unemployment

Khayalethu Ngquse, 52, also from Manqindini, was injured while driving a tractor on Golden Ridge Estate, known today as Sandkloof. Ngquse drove into a deep trench at 7.30am on 17 February 2020. There were no signs warning about the trench. 

“As a result, I lost control and I fell to the ground. Shortly after that, the tractor dragged me for about eight metres. I was alone and desperate for help. I screamed, ‘Nduna! Nduna [calling the foreman]!’ The big tyre at the back of the tractor broke my left hip and ripped my private part. The ambulance only arrived after 10am and took me to Kirkwood Hospital. 

“I realised that there had been no signs or ‘danger tape’ around the trench. Someone told me that the people who were fixing electric cables and the water pump around the trench had left it open.” 

A few months later, Ngquse returned to work, but he has since lost his job and income of R1 702.80 a fortnight. 

13 December 2020: Khayalethu Ngquse, a resident of Manqindini in Paterson, injured his hip and pelvic area when he landed underneath a tractor on Sandkloof farm in February 2020. His contract has since been terminated. 

According to Sandkloof farm manager Francois Strydom, Ngquse “fell off the tractor. I think he was standing on something and fell. The tractor drove over his leg and dislocated one of his hips. We sent him to Kirkwood Hospital and he was referred to Port Elizabeth. When he came back, he stayed at his house for two or three weeks and then came to work again until his contract stopped. After that, I did not renew it.” 

Strydom claims that Ngquse was only on a six-month contract. Ngquse disputes this, pointing out that he was in hospital most of the time when the contract is said to have been signed. “There was no way of signing a contract while I was in pain,” he added.

‘He wanted me to die there’

Michael Phahla Mosoene, 34, originally from Ficksburg in the Free State, used to work on a farm in Madakeni in Kirkwood as an orange picker. Like many farm workers in the Kirkwood area, he stays in a mud house that has no electricity, toilet or water tap. The majority of people in the area are unemployed, he says. 

While still working at the Eastern Cape farm, he was being transported with other workers on a tractor when the driver lost control. The workers were flung through the air, landing on a pavement. “I was the only one who was injured. I went to the hospital and X-rayed my leg, which was broken. Since then, I could not find a proper job. These days I do only part-time work fixing potholes on the road. Sometimes I feel pain when it is cold, but there’s nothing I can do.”

12 December 2020: From left, Michael Phahla Mosoene, his partner Vuyokazi Mjeza and daughter Rethabile Mjeza sit outside their mud house in the Kirkwood area. His leg was injured in a tractor accident, but he has not received any compensation.

Former farm worker Griffiths Kasper, 66, has been unable to walk properly for 19 years since suffering a devastating injury at work. “I still remember that day vividly. The driver lost control. In a split second, the truck hit a pillar. After the impact, it compressed me against the wall. I could not move. A special machine [jaws of life] had to be brought from Port Elizabeth to cut out a piece so I could be rescued. 

“I was badly injured. An ambulance took me to Livingstone Hospital. Both my legs and left arm were broken. I have been paralysed since then. When I came back from hospital, [the foreman] gave me another job as a sweeper. He wanted me to die there so that I don’t claim for the injuries I sustained,” said a heartbroken Griffiths.  

Dada says these are just some of the cases that his organisation will focus on this year. He describes the situation as “a free-for-all for those who have got money to exploit workers”. 

“We are hoping that through this initiative, workers will realise that they have no one else but themselves to stand up for them and ensure that they are treated with dignity in their own land,” he said.    

9 October 2020: Griffiths Kasper was packing animal feed on a farm when he was pinned against a pillar by a truck in 2002. He has been unable to walk properly ever since and couldn’t find decent work again.

Endless frustrations

Wendy Pekeur, a long-time farm workers’ rights activist and director of the Western Cape-based Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth Movement, knows all too well the frustration of trying to get workers compensated for being injured while on duty. 

“I represented a worker eight years ago who was cutting apple trees in Ceres and lost a limb. We have applied for compensation and he doesn’t even have a case number yet. The compensation commission number in Pretoria just rings. There is no response to emails,” Pekeur said.

“Sometimes injured workers are disabled permanently, but they cannot even get disability grants if their spouses also work on the farm, as they are said to earn too much. One worker was trapped between a wall and a harvesting machine. When he was finally freed, the farmer did not even call the ambulance. He just took the worker to his wife and put him on the bed and [the worker] died. The family then had to leave the farm.” 

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Pekeur says the police sometimes fail to investigate fatal accidents on farms, the Department of Labour is “nonchalant” about farm workers’ injuries, and “there are lots of cases where medical reports are never sent to the Compensation Fund, so no compensation can ever be paid”. There are too few labour inspectors to carry out regular inspections on farms, she adds.

“The fruit farmers get away with murder. Vineyards are more closely scrutinised. Last month [in November], a worker brought a case of unfair dismissal after he injured his back on a berry farm two years ago. He could hardly walk afterwards, but when he stayed off sick he was dismissed by the farmer for ‘misconduct/AWOL’. Again, it was never reported as an injury on duty. He should have been medically boarded by now,” said Pekeur.

Standards on fruit farms

Hannes de Waal, managing director of the Sundays River Citrus Company, says all the fruit farmers in the area are accredited with the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (Siza). “We require producers to maintain Siza accreditation [so] as to be able to sell their produce,” he said. 

De Waal adds that the citrus farms are all “businesses subjected to all the [occupational] health and safety laws. So they need to act per legal requirements.”

Siza has a social standard which stipulates that each citrus farm must employ a senior manager to ensure that workplace health and safety measures are implemented. This manager must collaborate closely with a permanent employee who acts as the workers’ health and safety representative. 

All fruit farms that are members of Siza must have “an action plan to promote safe, healthy and hygienic working conditions for all workers”, which can only be drawn up after all health and safety hazards have been identified. They must record all accidents, report these to the compensation commissioner, and investigate any injuries that need to be treated with more than basic first aid. The results of the investigation must be reported back to workers. Dada, however, says these steps are not always followed, and De Waal says Siza does not monitor whether all accidents are reported.

Hlonitshwa Mphanka, communications manager at the Compensation Fund, did not reply to questions sent on 15 December 2020.

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