Human rights conditions in fruit and wine industry: Human Rights Watch report, in presence of Deputy Minister

Rural Development and Land Reform

23 August 2011
Chairperson: Mr S Sizani (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee had received a Report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) on human rights abuses in the wine and fruit industry sectors, but expressed some reservations about the methodology used, and its practicality, and raised these issues with the Researcher from HRW before she began her presentation. The Deputy Minister, who was in attendance, noted that the Report had raised little that was new, and the Ministry needed to come up with pragmatic solutions to the long-standing issues of worker exploitation, which was a most serious issue. Another aspect of the Report was that the Department of Labour inspectors were not considered competent, and this resulted in the spirit and letter of the Constitution not being realised in practice. The Report revealed inadequate on-site housing, workers exposed to pesticides without proper safety equipment, insufficient access to toilets or drinking water while working, and efforts to block workers from forming unions. Although the wine and fruit industries contributed substantially to the economy and tourism, workers in these sectors were very badly paid, and not much progress had been made improving their conditions, despite media attention. It urged that the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) should establish an inter-departmental task force to deal with farm workers and dwellers, to avoid responsibilities being shifted from one department to another and to create a single forum for all stakeholders. Members were concerned that perhaps the wording of the Report might be too accusatory and hinder trade in the wine and fruit products, and asked how to reconcile the rights of workers with the criticisms of foreign investors that South African labour laws were too rigid. They pointed out that there seemed to be a reluctance to apply the same standards to the developing and developed countries. Members were critical of the research method, asking for more explanations as to how the research had been conducted and the findings reached. They were also concerned that the farm sites and names of those interviewed were not made available, pointing out that it was impossible for the Committee to conduct oversight visits. They also enquired whether all stakeholders had been contacted, and wondered why the Report was disseminated before the findings were made available to Parliament. HRW urged that Parliament should adopt a pragmatic approach and realise that these injustices were part of a larger systemic problem, and must identify specific discrepancies requiring to be addressed.

After the HRW representatives had left, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform also commented that some of the findings were regarded as unacceptable, but that this Department was also taking reasonable steps to ensure that workers’ rights were not being undermined, although there was still much work to be done. There had been a decrease in evictions, and this Department would shortly be expanding its in-house facility to deal with evictions, and that, although cases of eviction should be notified to the Department, this did not always happen. The DRDLR was in consultation with the Department of Human Settlements, but the former was concerned to protect the rights of those facing eviction. The Deputy Minister agreed that a holistic approach was needed to tackle worker abuse in all its forms, throughout the agricultural sector, but argued that the Committee should first evaluate the programmes already in place before moving to other issues, and suggested that HRW should be asked what practices were accepted in other jurisdictions. Members generally agreed that more information was needed before formulating an approach.

Meeting report

Human rights conditions in fruit and wine industry: Human Rights Watch report
The Chairperson noted that the representatives from the Human Rights Watch (HRW) were running very late, and asked Members if they would discuss their report without having any briefing, or if the meeting should simply be adjourned.

Ms A Steyn (DA) noted the general consensus of Members that it would be preferable to deliberate on the Report in the presence of the HRW representatives, as this would facilitate an empirical analysis of any violations of workers’ rights violations. It could also highlight any logistics for potential oversight.

The Chairperson noted and agreed with Members’ views. He noted that this meeting was called to objectively critique the HRW report (the Report) and its findings and, in particular, to establish whether the project was comprehensive, the research methodology was sound, and if sufficient conclusions had been drawn.

Mr Thulas Nxesi, Deputy Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, stated that nothing new had been established in this Report. Many of the issues that were touched upon had been of major concern to a number of Parliamentary Committees for quite some time. He said that his Ministry was primarily interested in coming up with a pragmatic solution to tackling the long-standing issues of worker exploitation in the fruit and wine industries in particular.

The Chairperson welcomed the comments made by the Deputy Minister, but added that while many of the issues significantly pre-dated the HRW Report, this did not detract from the fact that they were still serious issues. He underscored the fundamental necessity of collaboration between departments when tackling workers’ rights. He added that Human Rights lawyers also had an obligation to workers; to fortify their practices and procedures, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) would also need to be responsible and willing to cooperate with the respective departments. He emphasised that HRW was an independent organisation, whereas the departments were not. Therefore, the main role of the committee was to work with HRW on hearing the issues identified, and to supervise the decisions made by the department as solutions.

The Chairperson further claimed that HRW had considered the Department of Labor inspectors quite incompetent. The report had highlighted that even though South Africa had one of the most comprehensive Constitutions in the world, many of its workers were still struggling under terrible conditions. He wanted the Committee to pursue the Labour inspectorate counterparts in various other departments, including Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, saying that this would be a fundamental step forward.

At this point, the representatives from HRW arrived, and the Chairperson briefly summarised what had already been discussed, and the expectations for how the meeting would continue.

Ms Kaitlin Cordes, Research Fellow: Africa Human Rights Division, HRW, and author of Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries, apologised for the fact that the delegation had been delayed. She tabled her Report, and explained that her research documented conditions in the farming sector that included on-site housing that was unfit for human habitation, workers being exposed to pesticides without proper safety equipment, lack of access to toilets or drinking water while working, and efforts to block workers from forming unions. She emphasised that while the Western Cape’s fruit and wine industries contributed billions of rand to the country’s economy, supported tourism, and were enjoyed by consumers around the world, their farm workers earned among the lowest wages in South Africa. She noted that despite much media attention, not much progress had been made in securing the rights and conditions of farm workers. Ms Cordes suggested that whatever conclusions the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR or the Department) reached, it should at the very least think about establishing an inter-departmental task force to deal with farm workers and dwellers. She explained that she had learned from her experiences in dealing with South African bureaucrats that the responsibility for workers’ conditions was constantly being shifted between departments. For this reason, it was of the utmost necessity that one forum be created in which civil servants, farmers and stakeholders could deal with their issues together.

The Chairperson asked HRW about the recommendations made to international consumers regarding South African wine and fruit. He was concerned whether the language being used might be too accusatory, pointing out that the production of wine and fruit was essential to the South African economy.

Ms Cordes responded to the Committee that while the South African fruit and wine industry was held in high regard, the pressure put on international consumers was very necessary. She assured the Chairperson that HRW was not in the business of discouraging the sale of products, but its objective was primarily to ensure that products were being manufactured ethically.

Mr Nxesi then highlighted the strategic dilemma in which the Department found itself. He asked HRW how it would reconcile the exploitation of rights of union members – by corporations such as WalMart - with the feeling of a number of Western nations that South Africa’s labour laws were too rigid. He was concerned that international bodies were only focusing on developing countries, and were not interested in tackling similar cases in the developed world.

Ms L Mazibuko (DA) also expressed her concern about the potential damaging effects of the Report. She was very critical of the research methodology and asked the representatives to better explain exactly how these findings were reached.

Both the Chairperson and Ms Mazibuko asked if a list of farm sites was available. They asked whether the sample had been stratified or was merely a random sample. They were both primarily interested in the claim that only a small number of the over-400 farms in total were not involved, at some stage or the other, in abusing their workers. It was pointed out that many of the Committee Members considered this claim to be quite bold, and wanted further information to back it up. The Chairperson was greatly concerned that the names of the sites could not be presented, saying that the Committee found itself in a difficult position if it could not build any strong case on the Report, and if the findings were not conclusive.

Ms Mazibuko underscored that nobody wanted the farming industry tainted by misinformation and urged that it was vital to supply the provincial departments with accurate information, so that appropriate steps may be taken to protect and improve the rights of farm workers and dwellers.

Ms H Matlanyane (ANC) asked whether HRW had contacted all relevant stakeholders, saying that their input was just as important as any results that had been published. She also asked why the report had been disseminated before Parliamentary committees had been consulted about the findings.

Ms Cordes assured the committee that HRW did not operate any double standards. She mentioned investigations currently being conducted in the agricultural sectors of various developed countries as well. She clarified that HRW was interested in the countries that undermined the fundamental right to Freedom of Association. She underscored that South Africa’s legislation was indeed fine in principle, but whether those principles translated into good practice was entirely another matter. She again emphasised the advantage to be gained from an inter-departmental task force to tackle such matters.

Ms Cordes highlighted that her Report had not been particularly quantitative, but that this Report, based on in 2010 and 2011 with over 260 people, including 117 current or former farm workers and an additional 16 farm dwellers, illustrated the precarious position in which many workers and farm dwellers continued to find themselves. The problems that farm workers and farm dwellers faced were not unknown to the South African government, farmers, or retailers who purchased agricultural products. In 2003 and 2008, for example, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) documented the same types of abuses, and civil society campaigns on South African products had led to some private sector efforts to improve farm conditions. Human Rights Watch also spoke with farm owners, and this Report presented their perspectives, and discussed some of the better practices found on some farms. However, the steps taken to date, whether by the government or by private actors, had not been sufficient to bring overall conditions in the Western Cape agricultural sector in line with the basic standards set forth in South African law and industry codes of conduct.

Ms Cordes agreed that her sample size had indeed been quite small. However, the extrapolations had been meticulous. She explained that HRW approached a variety of individuals, including academics, workers, stakeholders, labour inspectors and third party auditors. She pointed out that the third party auditors had been particularly useful as they could speak broadly about the cases in which they had been involved. She said that the Provincial Department of Agriculture in the Western Cape had taken a number of researchers out into the field, who had spent time in these farming communities, and had interviewed a host of parties.

Ms Cordes claimed that HRW had attempted to set up a number of meetings with stakeholders but had not had much success. HRW had also been requesting consultations with Parliamentary Committees since December 2010, but few had been willing to cooperate.

Ms Siphokazi Mthathi, Director, Human Rights Watch, Johannesburg, added that Parliament should adopt a pragmatic approach and realise that these injustices were part of a larger systemic problem. She stressed that the Western Cape was supposed to be one of the best governed provinces, and said that if these abuses were taking place here, that much worse could be occurring elsewhere. She thought that the Committee had to be proactive and identify specific infrastructural discrepancies that ought to be remedied. She urged that Committee Members should approach other organisations if they wished to discuss specific cases, but said that HRW representatives would be unable to divulge all of its information as it was confidential.

The Chairperson assured the representatives that the Members were not intending to levy accusations that the findings had been falsified, but noted that the Committee had certain expectations that needed to be met. This Committee indeed had a responsibility to pursue collaborations with farming associations and other government departments, to ensure better workers’ conditions.

The Chairperson excused the representatives from the meeting, before deliberating on the findings expressed in the Report.

Mr Barry Levinrad, Director, Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, informed the Committee that he would only discuss the recommendations in the Report that were specific to his department. He did not wish to comment on the methodology. He stressed that the Department found some of the findings expressed in the Report to be unacceptable, and said that they should be dealt with.

Mr Levinrad assured Members that reasonable steps were being taken to ensure that workers’ rights were not being undermined, but there was still much work to be done. He stressed the difficulty of this task, although he also said that he did not wish to make excuses. The project was important and changes needed to be made.

Mr Levinrad noted that the Department had seen a sufficient decrease in evictions from the Land Claims Court. He suggested that quality legal representation was essential for the protection of those workers who were facing evictions and that an in-house facility would shortly be provided by the DRDLR. Nonetheless, the Department recognised the desirability of avoiding litigation, wherever possible.

Mr Levinrad noted that a system to track evictions was actually in place and although it had been helpful there was no guarantee that there would be any fewer evictions, as this was an issue that required separate action. He highlighted that there was an obligation to notify his Department when cases arose, but said that this channel of communication was not always entirely effective.

He then commented that, in respect of the poor housing conditions, the DRDLR was consulting with the Department of Human Settlements. He stressed that there ought to be a distinction between the rights of residents and the rights of labourers. Mr Levinrad made it clear that his main concerns stemmed from the need to protect the relatives of those who potentially faced potential eviction.

Mr Nxesi underscored that a holistic approach was needed to tackle worker abuse in all its forms, and not just worker abuse in the fruit and wine sectors. He expressed his disappointment that the HRW representatives had failed to contact the respective departments before the Report was disseminated. He suggested that the Committee ought to evaluate already existing programmes that were put in place to tackle these issues, and move forward from there. Moreover, he felt that HRW had an obligation to indicate practices that had been found appropriate in developed countries, so as to avoid the implementation of one set of “guidelines for the West” and another “for the Rest”.

Nkosi Z Mandela (ANC) argued that before the Committee could make any headway it had to get more information. He claimed that the methodology of the HRW report was inherently flawed, as the names of sites had not been provided. He noted that, in an ideal situation, the Committee would be able to critique the recommendations given and plan the appropriate oversight visits, but this would be impossible without getting the names of those interviewed or even the farm locations.

The Chairperson agreed with Mr Mandela, adding that it was the responsibility of the Committee to approach its counterparts in other Committees, and agree upon how the Committees should tackle the issues.

The meeting was adjourned.


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