Farm workers and dwellers organise to challenge violations on farms


Angela Conway* discusses the difficulties and the successes gained with organising farm workers and dwellers in the Eastern and Southern Cape.

Farm workers and dwellers in South Africa’s rural areas are historically not well organised. Unions don’t have the capacity to organise farm workers scattered in the rural areas. The fact that their workplace and residence are often on privately owned land makes organising workers even more difficult, and increases the potential for intimidation. As a result working and living conditions on farms are often in violation of the minimal requirements of the law and in breach of basic human rights. Poor work conditions and organsing difficulties are worsened by the growing trend of commercial farmers to relocate farm dwellers off their farms, because they fear basic tenure rights of long-term occupiers. The workers are usually employed on a casual basis either daily, weekly or seasonally. Women in particular bear the brunt of casualisation. Recent research in the Hessequa municipality (Southern Cape) shows that most women (73%) are employed as casual workers compared to men (27%)..

Workers’ conditions

Current labour and tenure legislation does not address the specific needs of farm workers and dwellers. Women are discriminated against, their tenure rights are linked to that of male partners who are the permanent workers. Thus when a male worker dies his widow has a year in which to evacuate their home, which many have occupied for years and where lives have been built. The ANC government either lacks a vision on how farm dwellers should benefit from agrarian transformation, or their vision is informed by farm owners. The Deputy President, Motlanthe, publically encouraged farm dwellers to seek houses in urban centres or“agri-villages”. The emphasis on agri-villages maintains and entrenches patterns of spatial apartheid planning and has the potential to result in rural labour dumps and pockets of poverty. Labour legislation does not address the specific needs of farm workers and is often not enforced on farms. The relevant state departments do not undertake sufficient (if at all) inspections or punitive actions against employers who violate the law. It is difficult to challenge unfair labour practises or disrespectful bosses when your home and family depend on the same people for housing, transport and access to land and services. Skewed power relations are firmly entrenched on most farms and intimidation is high.

Organising Area Committees

Over the past 3 years farm workers and dwellers in the Southern and Eastern Cape have begun to organise themselves through Farm Area Committees. These committees represent workers and dwellers from a number of different farms, and include workers living off the farms in specific geographic areas. Organising through Area Committees has a number of benefits:

  • It builds solidarity and enables people to support each other to challenge rights violations. Levels of intimidation decrease when confronting abusive employers, exercising labour rights and inhumane living conditions if there is backing from committee members who do not live and work on the same farm.
  • It enables local campaign actions that target specific role-players in order to influence the context in a particular geographic area or agricultural sector. For example, in the fruit farming area of Langkloof in the Eastern Cape, the area committees challenged violations in the fruit export market.
  • It builds networks in a particular area towards improved service delivery on farms and the realisation of citizenship rights. Influencing the context at a local level and on individual farms has a positive spin off for the everyday lives and working conditions of farm workers and dwellers towards transforming power relations in the agricultural sector. The committees have formed interprovincial structures to identify and drive campaigns and mobilisation strategies. However, a broader mobilisation strategy is required.
  • The Fair Labour Campaing

During 2011 the area committees had a Fair Labour Campaign that targeted the Labour Department and focused primarily on occupational health and safety issues. The motivation for the campaign was the high number of violations of labour and health and safety cases reported to the area committees. The campaign included:

  • The dissemination of information around relevant legislation through pamphlets and workshops. Workers were invited to report cases of violations.
  • The collection of case studies, testimonies and photographs as evidence was recorded in a dossier.
  • This was followed by days of mass action in 3 rural centres where farm workers marched, picketed, presented testimonies and engaged with relevant state departments, and presented their dossier of cases. The primary demand was the enforcement of legislation on farms including inspections on farms identified as“hot spots”, compensation for injury on duty even where the timeframe for lodgement had lapsed and intervention in cases of threatened or constructive evictions.
  • The committees sustained the campaign with continued actions and the mobilisation of farm workers and dwellers; and engaged with role-players in the export market and the state, and published articles and newsletters.
  • Exchanges and joint actions with farm workers and dwellers from other areas in the Eastern Cape who were part of the Fair Labour Campaign.

Campaing Successes

One of the committce membsers said,“This was the first time we, as farm workers, have taken such action in this area. When people talk about you, you know you have made an impression.”Some of the campaign’s successes including the following:

  • The Labour Department recognises the area farm committees as legitimate structures and has undertaken inspections on farms issuing compliance orders including retrospective payment of wages to workers who were paid below the minimum wage. The Department has committed to ongoing inspections and follow-ups.
  • Workers have begun to receive compensation payouts for injury on duty, even where the cases had “expired”. For workers who have been permanently disabled, have lost their employment and been evicted from their homes this compensation is a life line which begins to restore some form of dignity.“I can now contribute to my family’s well being again.”
  • There has been intervention in threatened evictions.
  • Services to farm workers and dwellers have improved on a number of farms with better sanitation provided and transportation to school for children who previously walked long distances.
  • Commercial farmer’s unions and other stakeholders are recognising the area farm committees as legitimate structures. There is growing mobilisation amongst farm workers and dwellers. The campaign’s success has helped workers to see the benefits of organising and building organisation. There is an increase in membership of area farm committees and growing interest from other farm workers and dwellers. The challenge is to move beyond the social protection offered by labour and tenure legislation towards campaigns for agrarian transformation, which challenge unequal power relations and unfair distribution of wealth in the rural areas. There is also the challenge to build a solidarity movement of farm workers and dwellers nationally and internationally.

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