Condition of Farmworkers: SA Human Rights Commission briefing

Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


1 June 2005

Reverend P Moatshe (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Conditions of Farm Workers: South African Human Rights Commission PowerPoint presentation
Local Municipality of Madibeng –Supplementary Report: South African Human Rights Commission

Members were given a report on the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) inquiry into human rights violations in farming communities. It revealed that conditions on many farms still remained unacceptable. Every aspect of farm workers’ lives from education to health to housing remained of a very low standard. This sector of society remained extremely vulnerable. Some progress was being made through the work and efforts of certain government departments.

Members questioned the ability of the SAHRC to act on their findings. One of the purposes of the inquiry was to raise public awareness and publicise conditions suffered by farm workers, which the Committee felt had been achieved. Members decided to call for a follow up meeting, as further discussions on the situation were required.


SA Human Rights Commission briefing
Ms J Cohen, SAHRC Parliamentary Officer, told Members the inquiry had been launched because complaints had been received from people living and working on farms, as well as from farm owners. The inquiry had been undertaken in August 2003. There had been a follow up report to discover whether any of the findings had been acted upon and whether conditions had improved. The purpose of the inquiry had been to determine the extent of the human rights violations, to raise awareness and to publicise these conditions. It was found that the extension of basic labour rights had done little to improve compliance and working conditions. Recurring themes were low wages, lack of organisation among workers, child labour, illegal foreign labour, limited access to assistance, ignorance of labour law and chronic abuse of alcohol, especially in the Western Cape and the North West provinces. Various witness statements were indicative of the gravity of the situation regarding abysmally low pay and entrenched and continued racism and abuse of power by farm owners. Illiteracy contributed towards further disempowerment of these people. Unfair dismissal was always an unspoken threat if unfair conditions and wages were questioned.

The inquiry concluded that the legislative and policy framework at a national level did not correspond with the reality experienced by farm workers and that they were so poor as to not be in a position to exploit their rights. Health care was inadequate due to various factors. There was a great need for education and awareness of HIV/Aids, especially for men. Foetal alcohol syndrome was a major problem and these children had special educational needs, which were not being met. Farm workers did not have sufficient access to nutritional food that was caused by low wages, high food prices, debt and abuse of alcohol.

The right of access to adequate housing remained unrealised for many farm dwellers and there were also no mechanisms in place to assist and house those who had been unfairly evicted. Although illegal evictions were a criminal offence, hardly any offenders were convicted and they occurred widely. The Departments of Housing and Land Affairs were not executing their responsibilities in this regard.

Many farm workers did not enjoy access to social security services for a number of reasons. The Department of Home Affairs seemed to be patently out of touch with reality in this regard. Education for children and adults was inadequate and abuse was still rife by farmers. There was still widespread non-compliance with the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) and lack of knowledge of what it entailed. Women were discriminated against in achieving tenure security and employment.

The follow up report showed that certain government departments had embraced the need for transformation and others had fobbed it off. The Department of Labour was involved with ongoing programmes, the Department of Education was looking at its responsibilities in this area and discussions had started between the Departments of Housing and Land Affairs. The Department of Justice had improved access to legal assistance and alternative conflict resolution services. Safety and security had been addressed in certain respects.

Mr Cameron Jacobs, SAHRC Social and Economic Unit had conducted research in the North West province during February 2005 in response to allegations made by councillors of human rights violations. He undertook to provide a balanced perspective by gaining the viewpoints of all stakeholders, such as Agri NorthWest, the Transvaal Agricultural Union and the Department of Labour. He said that it was essential to consider and understand the relationship pf paternalism, which existed between the farm owner and the farm workers. This relationship did not exist in the industrial sector. The farmer governed and controlled every aspect of the farm worker’s life, including his supply of water, electricity, food, shelter, etc. This was based on an historical legacy, which had to be "disengaged" in order to bring about fundamental change. It coloured the world-view of both the farmer and the farm worker.

He had visited four farms, two in the company of representatives of the Department of Labour and two with representatives from the Transvaal Agricultural Union. These were all deemed "good" farms. Two of the farms deducted more than ten percent from salaries and one more than ten percent for loans. Two of the farms had incomplete employment contracts and which contained illegal clauses. All farms were in flagrant violation of the law and workers lacked knowledge or the ability to assert their rights. Inspection of farms posed major practical problems and staff retention in this area was very low. Inspectors often needed the SAPS to accompany them.

One farm provided so-called housing by which a warehouse had been converted into ‘units’, which were partitioned off by plastic sheeting. Up to eighty workers lived in the converted warehouse and R160 was deducted from their wages per month for accommodation. A maximum of ten percent should be deducted for accommodation, while in this case 22% was being deducted. A clause often inserted in the employment contract provided that farm workers lost their right of residence once they turned sixty.

A visit to another smaller horticulture farm had been far more encouraging. Although they were not fully compliant with the sectoral determination, they had hired staff on a permanent basis and paid them more than the required minimum. They had also provided workers with the opportunity to work land, which lay dormant in a share-cropping scheme of sorts. The farmers had helped the project get off the ground. The Commission would continue to monitor this farm. One farmer still treated workers as his children and was reluctant to provide improved conditions based on the belief that it would make workers lazy. This kind of mentality unfortunately still existed.

A meeting with Agri North West clearly showed that ESTA was a major concern for farmers and posed a stumbling block for further housing development, since it placed the obligation of providing housing on the farmers and not the government. There were also misperceptions about the rights of farm workers in terms of ESTA which were thought to be tantamount to ownership and transferable. Another concern was the use and abuse of alcohol. The dop system was however no longer being practised. The impact of HIV/Aids was also a major concern for farmers.

Mr G Krumbock (DA) said that it was not necessarily true that game farms did not improve the lot of farm workers as he had seen many which in fact employed more farm workers and paid higher wages than on other farms. It was obvious that apart from domestic workers, farm workers were the most vulnerable sector in our society and that the inquiry had been vitally important. However, he felt that an "outsider" reading this report would be left with the impression that every farmer in the country was guilty of shocking abuses. Had there been any quantitative analysis of the extent to which these violations were occurring? Had any sort of categorisation been done to assess in which provinces the problems were worst, and had farms been assessed according to some kind of scale of acceptability? Only once such an analysis had occurred could one go forward and assess progress. The report did not provide any sense of this.

Mr F Adams (NNP) asked whether the Departments of Health and Social Development had responded. He said there was a common perception that commandos were mostly on the farmers’ side. The report had reflected all the problems he himself had been witness to, including the practice of putting a farm worker on the back of a vehicle, while the farmer’s dog sat in front. Most farmers did not take their workers into town and there was inadequate transport. Many farmers’ wives bought groceries, which they then sold at double or triple the price to farmworkers. Some farmers deducted money for groceries at the end of the month if they did not deduct money for alcohol.

Mr R Tau (ANC) said the Commission should be congratulated on its work. It was disturbing to see that after ten years of democracy such conditions still prevailed. It was obvious that much work needed to be done in this regard. Farms surrounded most of the Members’ constituencies and their personal experience coincided with the Commission’s findings. The question was whether the Commission could make a difference to these conditions. He had seen that physical injury often led to dismissal. He said the Department of Transport should become involved in providing adequate transport for farm workers to be able to access urban areas for their various needs. He asked whether it was correct for him to assume that the Departments, which had not been mentioned in the follow up report, had not responded to the recommendations.

Mr M Mzizi (IFP) said that employment contracts were essential in reducing low wages. He had personally been paid ten shillings a month, which came to about twelve pounds per year. Children born and brought up on the farm were often expected to work for no pay. He asked whether the Commission had any powers to change this.

Mr N Mack (ANC) commented that the report did not cover constituencies in the deep, rural areas. In the Karoo, farm workers were left to fend for themselves for up to six months at a time and only saw the farmer at sheep shearing time. Shepherds stayed in the wild for up to four months at a time.

Ms H Matlanyane (ANC) said even though commandos had been replaced by private security companies in certain areas, they still employed the same ‘strong arm’ tactics. She had personal experience of an instance where the Department of Labour inspectors had run away from a farm, after being chased by dogs, leaving the MPs standing there. Inspectors were often simply unable to gain access to farms and when they did so, they usually checked the administrative aspects of the farm, without conducting a physical inspection. Better training for these inspectors was required.

Rev Moatshe also asked whether the Commission had "teeth" and suggested that the Committee should also ask if it had "teeth". He suggested the two enter into a contract with each other to improve the situation. He proposed the Committee launch a housing project for farm workers and that instead of continuing the practice of housing workers on farms they be housed in so-called "agri villages" outside the jurisdiction of farm owners while not being dependent on them.

Ms Cohen agreed that game farms were not always problematic and that such information was encouraging. There was very little scientific data available, since very little research in this area had been done. This did not preclude the Commission from going ahead and launching their inquiry. It was difficult to assess exactly how many illegal evictions occurred, since there was no information available and yet from reports on the ground it was obvious that illegal evictions were numerous. The Commission had recorded whatever information had come its way and by the nature of its inquiry, it had mostly attracted the negative information. They had given AgriSA the opportunity to provide them with statistics as well as the Department of Labour.

Rev Moatshe suggested that Ms Cohen provide responses to the Committee in writing and that a follow up meeting would be held to further discuss the issues, since the gravity of the situation warranted it. Members agreed to this.

Mr van Rooyen suggested that some of the Departments concerned should be represented at the meeting. Rev Moatshe agreed and added that they would invite their counterparts from the National Assembly as well.

The meeting was adjourned.


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