The protesting workers who grow Woolworths’ flowers

Oak Valley farm workers are weary of low wages for hard work and racially discriminating housing, leading to a protest deadlock that now has the union calling on big retailers to boycott the farm.

Oak Valley Estate is a farm in the Western Cape that is acclaimed for its flowers. But its workers have been on strike for a month, accusing the company of paying low wages and segregating worker housing along apartheid racial lines. And now, an independent investigation by the South African Human Rights Commission has found that Oak Valley, which supplies produce to retail giants such as Woolworths, has black African workers living in single-sex hostels that have existed since apartheid.

Akhona Xasa* is an avid Orlando Pirates fan. On the wall of her home in Pineview Township in Grabouw, a poster of the 2017-2018 football team almost distracts from the beer bottle lids she has used to nail cardboard over the holes in her shack. But in the winter, water still seeps in despite Xasa trying to keep her home as dry as possible so her four-year-old son doesn’t feel the dampness.

Xasa wakes up at about 4am to get her son ready for school. He will arrive a little too early, so that his mother can get to work at Oak Valley Estate on time. She spends her days working in the farm’s flower department, where she prepares the beds, plants the flowers, prunes and harvests them during the picking season. She earns R162 a day for this work, which she is now challenging as part of a protest driven by the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), which is representing the protesting farm workers.

The 30-year-old has worked at the farm for eight years, but only as a permanent member of staff for the past four. Fed up with the daily wage, which is in line with the national minimum wage, she and others at the farm have downed tools in demand of a wage of R250 a day and an end to the alleged ill-treatment of workers.

Some of Xasa’s colleagues live in single-sex hostels around the farm. They allege that only black African workers live in the hostels while those formerly classified as coloured under apartheid live in family units. New Frame has been unable to verify these allegations because the farm has barred public access to the hostels. CSAAWU national organising secretary Karel Swart has said private security guards followed union representatives during their visits to the farm, where they were banned from photographing the hostels.

Oak Valley has denied racial discrimination. The estate said it would not tolerate human rights abuses and has no policy in place that “intentionally” violates the rights of workers and residents on the farm.

The flowers that Xasa picks are packed and transported to major retail outlets such as Woolworths. Oak Valley said that in 2003, it provided 49% of Woolworths’ flowers. It is also the biggest supplier of cut flowers to retailers in the Western Cape. But the South African Human Rights Commission has given the farm a stern warning over the conditions in which the hostel dwellers live.

21 May 2019: Striking farm workers from Oak Valley Estate wait for feedback from the union on the lawn 1km away that has been designated as a picket area.

The hostels

On a bitterly cold day, Loyiso Mthembu* sits with his fellow workers on a grassy lawn one kilometre away from the Oak Valley farm. This lawn is the picket area where they are allowed to strike, according to the rules agreed by stakeholders at the Commission of Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) after the labour dispute was lodged.

Mthembu has lived in the hostels for more than 20 years, since he first began working for Oak Valley in 1997. The 50-year-old describes his room: when you enter at the door, there will be a bunk bed on your left and another on your right. One metre separates the two beds. Four men will sleep here. At the head of the room, there will be a window and a table.

Mthembu sleeps in the bottom bunk of his shared room. He came from Qumbu in the Eastern Cape to look for a job in Grabouw. “I’ve been working at Oak Valley since 1997, but I’m 10 years permanent now,” he says.

He started by pruning apples and harvesting them. The work was hard, he says, because sometimes he could feel the chemicals used to keep bugs away from the apples on the skin of his fingers. He used to worry that the poison would make him ill. He has since been promoted to a spray operator, responsible for spraying the chemicals on the fruit. He earns R187 a day.

“The money is too small. I’m a spray operator now, I’m working with the chemicals. What amount is this? I am supposed to have an allowance for the medical aid because I am using dangerous chemicals,” he says.

Each month, Mthembu sends money back to the Eastern Cape for his wife and three children. His wife is not allowed to stay at the hostel with him and when she does visit, he has to pay to rent a room in a nearby township for his family. Sometimes, his children will come to visit too. Rent can cost between R500 to R1 000, depending on how many rooms are needed. The farm only allows visitors on weekends. His demand, along with other hostel dwellers, is that the old buildings must be converted into family housing.

“The coloured people have houses with their families. It’s unfair because we are doing the same jobs, but they have their families staying with them. That is what we demand,” he says.

21 May 2019: Some of the workers from Oak Valley farm live in Pineview Township.

Human rights concerns

Oak Valley Estate managing director Christopher Rawbone-Viljoen told New Frame that only seasonal workers live in the accommodation. When their seasonal work is complete, they leave the farm until the next season. But Mthembu is a permanent worker.

Oak Valley has admitted that the hostel accommodation was built during the apartheid era in 1988, but it was only in 2018 that the farm took a decision to “phase out” the single-sex hostels. He said that the farm has no policies that “intentionally” violate the human rights of its workers and residents.

“There were only 59 seasonal workers staying in the seasonal accommodation this year. Approximately 20 have left for home already, 40 remain. All other seasonal workers reside in Grabouw town,” he told New Frame.

The workers in the hostels share a canteen where they can cook food. There is a washroom with showers, but no privacy, according to Mthembu. Caleb Phula, a community committee leader in Siyanyanzela township in Grabouw and a former Oak Valley employee told New Frame that at least four workers can shower at the same time, standing close to one another with no partitions for privacy.

“You stand one, two, three, four,” Mthembu confirmed, each finger of his raised hand coming up as he counted, representing the workers showering.

The farm has been under investigation since the South African Federation of Trade Unions, of which the CSAAWU is a member, laid a complaint against it in May with the South African Human Rights Commission. Western Cape commissioner Chris Nissen, who visited the hostels as part of the commission’s investigation, confirmed to New Frame that only black African workers live in the single-sex hostels, but added that there was also at least one black African family who lives in the family units.

Nissen confirmed that the hostel infrastructure and conditions under which the workers there were living was poor, negatively affecting the quality of their lives. A team visited and reported that what they saw “could violate the human rights of the workers in the hostels”. Nissen said the hostels had been built for black African workers who came as migrant labourers from the Eastern Cape. He said families deemed as coloured have traditionally lived for generations on farms in the Western Cape, so farmers had not built hostels for those families.

“It’s the failure of the management to provide housing in a proper way to those who were coming. That happened before they had [black] African workers who are permanent. But the demographics of the town have changed, they have [black] African workers now who are permanent,” Nissen surmised.

But he has reservations over the conduct of Oak Valley’s management, because of its seeming lack of provision of safe housing for workers. “I didn’t agree with what I saw,” he said.

The strike

The CSAAWU and its members, armed with an agreement from the CCMA, embarked on a strike in the first week of May. But negotiations between the workers and the company have collapsed, with the union refusing to compromise on its demands and the company refusing to budge from the status quo.

Swart has confirmed that the CSAAWU is now writing letters to retailers that source produce from Oak Valley. He said the union will be sending letters to Woolworths, Checkers, Edgars and Spar – which also buys flowers from Oak Valley – demanding that they boycott the farm and stop buying its produce.

The hostel dwellers have formed a committee to negotiate with the farm’s management, but they have been unable to hold a meeting because the farm allegedly does not want union representatives to be included in the negotiations. The hostel committee has insisted that the union be present.

While the deadlock continues, a movement to boycott all Oak Valley products has begun on social media. Woolworths has said that Oak Valley is audited by the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (Siza), which “provides a platform for agricultural stakeholders to ensure ethical and environmentally sustainable trade”, according to its website. After being audited in November 2018, Oak Valley received a gold rating from Siza. This rating assures that the farm is compliant with ethical farming regulations, including fair labour conditions.

“Internally, Woolworths has reviewed their last Siza audit (Nov 2018) and no findings were noted in light of discrimination practices on the farm,” said Woolworths. But the retail giant also said that in light of the allegations, the Woolworths sourcing manager would be visiting the Oak Valley farm.

21 May 2019: Karel Swart from the farm workers’ union giving feedback on a meeting with the Human Rights Commission and the status of the union’s case in the labour court.

The wait

Workers who are on strike are receiving no pay while negotiations are in deadlock. The farm has been granted an interdict from the labour court to prevent any unlawful protest. The interdict also stops protesters from blocking the N2 highway, an action that initially brought further publicity to the strike. The interdict was granted after the estate accused striking farm workers of intimidating staff at the farm, violent protests and violating the picket rules established at the CCMA.

Lawyers from the non-governmental Socio-Economic Rights Institution have fought the interdict on the grounds that it violates the workers’ right to protest and that the estate has failed to link the protesters directly to any violent or unlawful conduct. Judgment has been reserved.

In the meantime, Mthembu will still be living in the hostel and Xasa will be thinking of her own family. Like Mthembu, she sends money home each month. She has managed to send enough money to get her brother to matriculate in the hope that he will never have to work on a farm as she has done. When she looks at the flowers in stores like Woolworths, she feels disappointed.

“When I see the flowers in those shops, it’s like I don’t want to walk in there,” she says.

*The names of workers have been protected because they still work at the farm and fear being targeted.

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