This article is based on an interview by Maria van Driel with Wendy Pekeur about her organisation, and the challenges facing farm-workers
An interview with Wendy Pekeur general secretary of sikhula sonke, farm-workers union
Wendy Pekeur is a 29-year-old single mother of two children, born on a farm belonging to the Department of Agriculture. She grew up in Scotsdene and matriculated in 1996. Wendy started working in the union in 2002, organising farm-workers. In 2005 she was elected general secretary of Sikhula Sonke.
Sikhula Sonke means ‘we grow together ’ and the farm-workers’ union is based in Stellenbosch. The union has 3800 members – 70% are women and 30% are men. The National Executive Committee (NEC) consists of 8 women and one man, the additional member. At the branch level, the union is 90% women.
In 1997 Wendy worked at Timberlea, a fruit farm that supplies Woolworths. As a seasonal worker she quickly became aware of the power relations between workers and employers. She earned R170 per week, from 7am to 5pm, doing bookkeeping, stocktaking and selling fruit. Everyday she cycled to work, on a bicycle borrowed from a neighbour. In winter it was hard and dangerous, cycling in the rain and barely able see where she was going. On this farm that she met Sara Claasen, a worker, the current president of Sikhula Sonke.
When the season ended in 1998, Wendy got a job at a factory, Britos Meat, where she worked for four years earning R220 per week. Wendy became a shop steward and that’s when the victimisation started. Working conditions were very hard, the salary was low, and workers were treated badly.
The floor manager, Jacko , was very rude to workers even though he had a so-called coloured wife. People worked on public holidays but received no overtime or days off. The workers began to organise to be paid the ‘double time’ as required by South African law.
The Britos management then tried to undermine the union. The management used their Savings Scheme for employees to dissuade people from joining the union. Workers had to choose between joining the Savings Scheme or the union, as they couldn’t be members both. Some workers resigned from the union.
The management harassed Wendy, and even tried to co-opt her by offering her a junior management position. When that didn’t work, the management used sexual harassment to drive her out of her job. At times she was called into a room with the owners, the two De Silva brothers, and five other male managers, to explain her actions. Although Wendy enjoyed the work at Britos – at times she prepared the orders for customers, helped with making the goulash, and the physical labour (carrying 6 x 2.5 kilogram polonies, burgers and pork carcasses to put onto the scale), the union did nothing to defend her. In 2002 she resigned from Britos Meat. Wendy said, ‘As a shopsteward I represented the union, but I still needed the union’s support. Too often I went to face disciplinary meetings on my own.’
The TAC and farm workers
During 2002 she became involved with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), where she learnt many things, including public speaking. Wendy was involved in the home-based care work at Klapmuts, caring for people and liaising with the clinics. Often, when someone was infected with HIV/Aids, it was never spoken about. Even when people had tuberculosis, it wasn’t talked about. The TAC provided them with training and their work was to raise awareness. With the TAC, they trained the community about safe sex and demonstrated the use of condoms using wooden penises. This included work with the local churches and also lobbying government to provide badly needed antiretroviral treatment for HIV/Aids. They also took up a civil liberties campaign to get Health Minister Tshabalala to be tried in court for genocide. These campaigns assisted many farm workers declare their status and live a positive life. Wendy says, “The community needs to give people the necessary support when they come out and declare their status.”
Organising on farms
In 2000 the Women on Farms Project (WFP) was started in Elsenberg. The WFP is an NGO that services farm-workers. Wendy’s aunts, also farm-workers, first involved her with the WFP’s campaign for a minimum wage. Many people working for more than 30 years were still earning R40 per week, as there was no minimum wage. WFP also worked with workers’ families.
As an NGO, WFP couldn’t represent workers at disciplinary hearings, and their right to access workers on the farms, was also a problem. This posed a challenge for the emerging organisation, mostly women. Should they form a women’s movement? They were also keen to organise workers as part of the community taking into account the broader socio-economic and political issues, so should they form a social movement? Or, should they form a trade union for farm-workers, and use the labour legislation to get access to the farms and build an organisation taking into account the broader socio-economic and political issues that affect farm workers? To facilitate their decision, in 2002, the WFP researched the different options as the basis for a collective decision.
Organising sikula sonke
On 1 May 2003, at a meeting in Ceres, the WFP appointed Wendy to build a trade union. The meeting discussed the role of the Self Employed Womens’ Association (SEWA) in India and in Durban, and their organisational experiences, including the accountable use of funds. After discussion on the different options, they decided to register as a trade union. But one of the legal requirements of the Labour Relations Act (1995) is that no discrimination in the workplace is permitted. Up to then they had organised women, and this meant that they had to include organising male farm-workers.
At the time, the WFP worked on 12 farms in Stellenbosch and Grabouw. The members put together a play about the experiences of seasonal women workers, and performed this in the rural areas, as a recruitment tool. This helped the emerging union to organise in places like Wellington, Ceres and Franschoek.
Most seasonal workers are women and so they went to ‘pick-up points’ to recruit women. The WFP and the Southern Cape Land Committee (SCLC) assisted them with organising many farms. In each area one person was included in one of the seven working groups, including negotiations, servicing members, and recruitment. Collectively the women prepared for the union’s registration, identified the tasks needed and the division of labour: on the constitution, the code of conduct, the expectations of leadership, staffing issues, the logo and the name of the new organisation.
Sikhula Sonke is a women-led organisation, based on workers’ control and community participation. Farm workers are predominantly women, and violence against women is a common problem. The union believes that it must protect women’s interests, and that women must protect and defend themselves. In the democratic process, Sikhula Sonke decided that every member must commit to the struggle of violence against women. Farm-workers who join Sikhula Sonke sign the membership form that includes a commitment ‘not to participate in any form of violence against women’; if they do they lose their membership immediately. This is an important commitment in the workplace and reaches into the privacy of members’ homes, and their relations with women and children in society. The union’s Congress Resolutions to eradicate violence against women is implemented through joint campaigns with the community, and organisations such as Rape Crisis.
- Inequalities that exist between men and women are a major challenge. Women are oppressed at the workplace, in the home and the community, and women need to be recognised. While most men are reasonably well informed, women often need to be empowered to believe in themselves and that they can do things. At the same time, men need to provide the spaces for women. Wendy believes strongly that women’s voices must be heard.
- Land eviction is still a big issue for farm work- ers. For instance, Wendy’s grandparents were not allowed to live with their own children during apartheid. Her grandfather is Xhosa- speaking from the Eastern Cape and her grand- mother is so-called Indian. In 1996 (after democ- racy), the Department of Agriculture evicted them from Elsenburg College, a training and agricultural institution. Wendy’s grandfather worked for Elsenburg for 46 years. I not for the community that resisted, they would have been on the street.
Often, because of patriarchy (male dominance) housing on farms is tied to the husband’s job. When the husband loses his job, the whole fam- ily is on the street. Women workers also need to get housing contracts.
- The popular perception is that farm-workers are drunkards, and the challenge is to get farm workers to believe in themselves, in their worth and their contribution to the economy, food security and society. The tot system (payment with wine) was historically part payment for farm-workers’ since colonialism in the 1800s, and continued on the commercial farms. While the apartheid government banned the tot system in 1990, by 2002 many farm-workers earned R40 per week and still got wine as part payment. Alcohol is a problem on many farms and many children are born with the alcohol foetal syn- drome. Although the tot system is banned, it has been driven underground, for example, amongst farms in Franshhoek.
Break down Barriers
South Africans inherited many prejudices against each other from apartheid, including language barriers. In Ceres, a town in the Western Cape, people speak Sesotho, Setswana, isiXhosa and Afrikaans. The union has one organiser who speaks Xhosa, and Wendy is also learning isiXhosa. While translations at meetings and conferences are used, the language barrier is a big problem. Members are encouraged that all the union structures must reflect the composition of the membership, not just gender but colour and language too. While the union needs Xhosa-speaking members in committees, sometimes the Xhosa-speaking males dominate and don’t involve Xhosa-speaking women. This is a challenge that the union needs to address.