Conditions of Farm Workers: briefing

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Employment and Labour

19 October 1999
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


19 October 1999

Documents handed out
Investigation into setting a minimum wage and conditions of employment for the agricultural sector (included in the minutes)

The Director General, Mr S Pityana, called for the fostering of good relations between employers and employees of the agricultural sector if South Africa is to be successful in the international arena. He accused farmers of failing to keep records of working hours, records of wages, refusing to honour notice periods in instances of dismissals and some he accused of racism.

The department then outlined the process it intended to follow in setting minimum wage and conditions of employment for the agricultural sector.

Mr Pityana, the Director General of Labour, said the agricultural sector is a very important one in the South African economy. For it to be successful in the international arena, good relations between the employers and employees must exist. He mentioned that a large number of complaints are received from the farm workers and "…our inspectors inspect on a routine basis but the volume of complaints makes it difficult for them to inspect properly." A large number of complaints come from the Northern Province and they raise a whole range of issues. "Some of the Department's inspectors have sought access to the farms but certain farmers refused them entry…some verbally abuse the inspectors, set dogs on them and pull guns on them," narrated Mr Pityana. In some farms, especially in Gauteng, Black inspectors were denied entry as farmers insisted on White inspectors.

Mr Pityana went on to say, "there is a feeling amongst some farmers that they are beyond the scope of the law. They feel they can trample on the rights of workers without anything happening to them." Mr Pityana lamented that there are some farm workers who have not tasted freedom which was acquired in 1994. He lashed out at these conditions as "unacceptable". He referred in particular to the COFESA farmers in the Western Cape as being uncooperative and circumventing the law.

The Director General painted a grim picture describing how some members of the farmers' agricultural union in certain provinces have established relations with vigilante groups "who use cruel methods such as baptising people in crocodile infested waters."

Mr Pityana complained that farmers fail to keep records of working hours, wage records, do not honour notice periods in cases of dismissals and some refuse to pay into the Unemployment Insurance Fund for their workers despite that aspect being covered by the Unemployment Insurance Act. Payment of workers injured at work does not happen. He conceded though that a few provide healthy working conditions for their workers.

Mr Pityana announced that it is very difficult for unions to organise in the sector and this leaves the workers vulnerable to abuse.

Concerning the wages of farm workers, Mr Pityana expressed disgust as, "in most instances farm workers earn below the bread line." He gave an example of the Northern Province where some workers earn about R40 and R50 a month. He said remuneration occurs also in kind, in the form of, for example, maize and wine, especially in the Western Cape.

"The workers are in obscure areas which are not attractive to the media and so suffer a great deal", Mr Pityana pointed out. He lashed out at those police who continue a once accepted norm that farmers are beyond the law despite their acts of criminality.

He concluded by stating that the country has a major task to reverse the scenario painted above.

Investigation into setting a minimum wage and conditions of employment for the agricultural sector
Ms F Bhyat, Director of Minimum Standards at the Department, made the following points in her presentation to the committee:

Why unionisation is difficult

  • Geographical spread
  • Fears of intimidation and victimization
  • Inability of union officials to access farms
  • Huge educational differentials that exists within the employer/employee relationship
  • Structural inefficiencies and restructuring
  • Farmers fears and uncertainties
  • Incidents of harassment of union officials

Skill levels of farm workers

  • Very little done in establishing a skilled workforce
  • Substantial training provided for a select few
  • Most of the work done on farms is unskilled or semi skilled.
  • Male permanent workers most likely to receive training.

Impact of lack of training

Rural dwellers and farm workers, have found themselves trapped in a cycle which is very difficult to extricate themselves from. A lack of basic education has meant being forced to take the lowest paid, least wanted jobs in order to survive. But there has been no education or training for workers beyond a standard level five on farms

Wages in the agricultural sector

  • Average wage is R457 per month.
  • Half of agricultural workers earned R400,00 or less per month in 1995.
  • The bottom 10% earned an average of R133,00 per month, while the top 10% earned an average of R1065 per month.
  • The bottom and top 25% of workers average wage was R193 and R620 respectively.
  • The bottom 10% of agricultural workers earned an average of R133,00 per month, while the top 10% earned an average of R1065 per month
  • The bottom and top 25% of workers average wage was R193 and R620 respectively.
  • Huge wage differentials exist between individual farms and from area to area
  • African workers earn 7,5% of white workers in this sector.
  • The median wages earned in the sector for African workers was R410 where for white workers it is R5491.00 (farmers are included within this category).

Levels of poverty

If one uses the poverty line of R650,00 (PLMC) 72,% of all agricultural workers would earn below the poverty line (OHS, 1996).

Other issues

  • As shown in Director General's presentation, other problems on farms include:
  • high levels of exploitation
  • abuse of worker rights
  • problems in enforcing labour laws.

What is a sectoral determination?

  • It is a set of minimum wages and conditions of employment for a particular sector.
  • Sectors can be different but must be within the framework of Basic Conditions of Emplyment Act.
  • Department does investigation for each sector and presents recommendations to the Employment Conditions Commission
  • Employment Conditions Commission recommends to Minister.
  • Minister publishes the set of minimum wages and conditions of employment for a particular sector and it becomes secondary law.

What is the Department's approach in respect of agricultural investigation?

  • Set a floor of rights cognizant of the needs of the sector
  • Address concerns of both farmers and farm workers
  • Be mindful of and facilitate the transformation and restructuring in the agricultural sector.


What is the process to set the agricultural determination?

  • Four phases
  • One: Public comments
  • Two: National consultation
  • Three: Regional consultation
  • Four: Assess information
  • Five: Draft determination
  • Six : Publicity campaign
  • Intend to maximise participation and consultation with affected stakeholders.

Phase One: Public comments
Public comments were called for in Gazette and newspapers including those that reach farmers.

  • 80 comments were received
  • 80% from employers and employer organisations including SAAU
  • 19% from employees and unions including COSATU
  • 1% from consultants and others.
  • Ends August 1999

Nature of public comments

  • Comments very polarised
  • 90% of employers indicated either that:
  • there should be no minimum wage
  • should look at wage structuring
  • a good relationship exists on farms
  • Employee submissions very short (one liners).
  • None of the submissions proposed alternatives.

Phase Two: National Consultations

  • Workshop and consultations with national stakeholders held
  • Objectives of consultations are to:
  • Highlight issues for focus
  • Plot a way forward for the investigation
  • Identify resources that would assist in the investigation
  • Ends September 1999

Phase Three: Regional consultations

  • Workshops and consultations with regional stakeholders, NGO's and CBO's.
  • Objectives are to:
  • develop relationships with the provincial role-players
  • set the tone of the investigation
  • engage in debate with the role-players
  • Second half of October 1999

Phase Three: Research

  • Research to involve
  • literature review
  • comparative country review
  • meetings with stakeholders
  • visits to farms
  • Also to identify sectoral focuses within agriculture
  • Ends March 2000

Phase Four: Assess information

  • Information to be collated and analysed
  • Proposals to be developed and put to ECC
  • ECC to hold public hearings
  • Ends April 2000

Phase Five: Draft determination

  • ECC secretariat to draft determination
  • ECC to deliberate on determination and advise Minister
  • Minister to approve
  • Determination to be published.
  • Ends June 2000

Phase six: Publicity campaign

  • Create public awareness on:
  • the contents of the determination
  • the benefits of complying
  • how workers can exercise their rights if their employer does not comply.
  • Education campaign with stakeholders
  • Ongoing

Issues for a sectoral determination

Investigation will need to look at:

  • Nature of the agricultural sector
  • Future prospects
  • Conditions in the sector
  • Wages and payment in kind
  • Employment trends

Concluding remarks

  • There is still a long way to go to
  • build consensus
  • develop appropriate options
  • Yet there is a momentum in the face of significant denial of human rights to farm workers
  • We seek the support and assistance where appropriate of Parliamentarians.

Questions and comments

Mr R Pillay (DP): Generally the highest level of education for most farm workers was quoted as Standard Five. To improve the situation, what does the Department envisage needs to be done.

DG's response: We need the co-operation of the farmers to allow the children on their farms to attend school.

Mr S Mshudulu (ANC): This question is directed to the Chairperson. How best does the Chairperson see us in this committee? Does he see us as different parties but one committee? When can we have a discussion on these controversial areas?

Chairperson's response: We have a collective policy whether we like it or not. I think we should interact separately with the farm workers. We need to find out what the Department is doing and it needs to find out what we intend to do.

Mr R Ndou (ANC): The DG's report shows slavery around the country. No one is allowed to enslave another person simply because he feels educated. We sit in Parliament and we are legislators; those workers need answers from us. We must find a day when we can discuss the DG's report. The DG has no power to legislate, but we have the power to do so. It is high time we stop visiting nice places and having a nice time, we must visit those farms!

Ms L Abrahams (ANC): Workers pay rent on the farms and yet earn very little. They have suffered for a long time. Also, in the CCMA workers present their cases without any assistance; they cannot read or write so something must be done to help them.

DG's response: We need to amend the provisions of the law stating that there should be no representation of the litigants at the CCMA so that the para-legals assisting the employees can represent them in the CCMA hearings.

Mr R Pillay (DP): I suggest we call the SAPS Border Control Unit and the Departments of Home Affairs and Labour to give us an outline on how they plan to deal with illegal immigrants working on the farms.

DG's response: At some stage Home Affairs issued 30 day temporary working permits for foreigners to work on the farms during the harvesting season. We asked them to stop this because some people stayed longer than required and besides, our own rural people who are not employed can help should such a need arise.

Ms E Thabethe (ANC): What relationship does Labour have with Land Affairs because some issues pertain to the Department of Land Affairs. Secondly can spontaneous visits to the farms be made because if we inform the farmers they will start covering up. At the same time I am aware of the trouble that is likely to arise should spontaneous visits be made.

Mr N Middleton (IFP): We must bring these farmers here. We must make an example of one and the rest will know!

Concluding comments by the Director-General

Mr Pityana concluded by stating that he is encouraged by the response of the members. "You are correct by stating that you are the representatives of these workers. Indeed we need uniformity from the parties to deal with the matter," commented Mr Pityana. He went on to say that the nation has to be aware that the public representatives are concerned about the plight of the farm workers. "I do not believe that the labour movement is doing enough to advance the course of the farm workers because it is difficult to unionise on the farms… but we need a spirit of solidarity again," the DG advised. He proposed the intervention of Government to make the labour movement commit itself to the advancement of the conditions at farms. He also proposed the intervention of business on the matter and criticised the tendency of Justice not to prioritise complaints arising from labour issues.


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