The farmworker strikes that erupted in the De Doorns area in the Western Cape in 2012 were unprecedented: probably for the first time in South African history, farmworkers took to the streets to demand a fair daily minimum wage.
This was their chance to show the country how tough working and living conditions really are for them.
Illustrator Chip Snaddon brings to life a fictional character, Kobus February, in a narrative which captures the life of labourers on the farms that produce our food.
Leonie Joubert and Mandy Moussouris, Fair Trade Project Manager with the Environmental Monitoring Group, give some commentary.down
DE DOORNS. THE THORNS. A place named after the barbed defences of the acacia trees that once grew on the banks of the Hex River.
For so many travellers, this Cape winelands town is a nowhere place which straddles a grey highway snaking through the fruit-ripe valley like a fossil relic. The alluring red-tinged autumnal leaves in nearby vineyard blocks or the imposing dragon-spines of the Hex River Mountains play a neat sleight of hand, drawing a passer-by’s eye away from the drab blue-collar street grids on either side of the N1. Travellers probably don’t see the blocky pedestrian bridge that strides across the road like some concrete beast from a futuristic world.
But for many Western Cape farmworkers, this town has become synonymous with a new chapter in the struggle for economic freedom in one of the most exploited labour sectors in the country.
Not far from here, on a farm called Keurboschkloof, 300 workers walked off the job on 27 August 2012 when their new employers wanted them to sign work contracts that amounted to taking a pay cut, reported the Mail & Guardian.
The walk-outs were a spark falling into a tinder-dry veld of dissatisfaction within a community that still faces ‘widespread racism, intimidation, and humiliation’, according to the International Labour Research and Information Group’s (ILRIG) research and education officer Shawn Hattingh.
‘(Farm) workers face… appalling wages, bad living conditions, and precarious work,’ writes Hattingh in his analysis of the strikes. Soon the fury roared through other farms like a wildfire hounded by the dry breath of the region’s prevailing south-easterly winds. Some 9 000 people were swept up by the heat of it all, blazes even erupting in the De Doorns township, Stofland (literally, Dust Land), where many off-farm labourers now live.
It was completely organic, according to many analysts, not needing the organising forces of political parties or worker unions to fan it to life. It’s not hard to see why. In the past two decades, conditions for farmworkers have only got worse, and their poverty more entrenched, says Hattingh.The ripple effects
Two critical issues surfaced after the strikes: firstly, that this historically strike-averse sector finally reached breaking point, pushing farmworkers to the streets for the very first time since 1994, maybe even the first time in this country’s history. Finally the public was confronted with the reality these people face every day. In many cases, it was horrifying.
Workers were getting a minimum wage of R69 per day. They wanted R150. What everyone eventually agreed on was R105, a 52 percent increase in the minimum wage. After nearly four months of toytoy-ing, and three deaths in the confrontation with police, the Department of Labour conceded. It was a meaningful victory, even though it is still far from what’s regarded as a living wage: R130 for permanent employees and R150 per day for seasonal workers, calculated on an estimate of what’s needed for a decent standard of living including housing, childcare, and schooling.
But the second issue was the subsequent fallout of the strike. Within a year, reports to farmworker organisations showed that some farmers were absorbing the cost of the wage increase by deducting from worker pay the cost of living which they’d previous received free: rent for on-farm housing, transport to and from town, certain doctor’s fees, and electricity.
Some farmworkers reported that they had their work time cut, resulting in a loss of wages. Others said they’d been bumped from full-time employment, onto the ‘short-time’ roster, meaning they became temporary labourers, often only getting work for a few months of the year. Typically women workers were feeling the brunt of this workplace restructuring.Fighting for the right to work
The Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) is working with farmworkers and small-scale farmers to foster equitable relationships between them and the often more powerful players in the broader food value chain, such as the large commercial farmers, processors, and retailers.
The strike, and its repercussions, presented an ideal opportunity to bring into focus the many challenges faced by this marginal group of labourers. For this series, EMG created the fictional character, Kobus February, whose story is a composite of the many issues which these farmworkers need to deal with.
Establishing ethical trade networks, empowering farmworkers through helping them understand their rights, training them up in various ways, and helping to connect small farmers with viable and sustainable markets are all part of EMG’s strategy to help give strength to their arm.
EMG appreciates that farming is a tough business environment where profit margins can be thin. Farmers often don’t get paid a fair price for their goods; input prices keep going up; they’re often expected to absorb more than their fair share of the food production risk, whether it’s having to deal with crop losses through extreme weather events, or their produce perishing on the retailers’ shelves.
Keeping farms viable is no small challenge. And now farmers must roll with another punch as increased labour costs eat further into their profit margins.
But this doesn’t give farmers licence to pay workers a ‘poverty wage’. And in many cases, farmers use the profit margin argument as a way of justifying low wages or cut work hours for labourers. The people who grow our food must not starve. The poorest and weakest in a fundamentally flawed global food value chain must no longer be the ones paying for how broken the system is.
Through the Kobus February story, EMG hopes to shine some light on how complex these issues are. And, through the organisation’s work with the farming sector and others in the broader food value chain, the team endeavours to find meaningful, sustainable solutions to some of these challenges.Fixing a broken system
Relationship and ownership: these are at the root of the problem in the broken food system, as far as they impact on small-scale farmers and farm labourers.
Some 300 years of social engineering under colonial and apartheid governments has stripped most South Africans - particularly small operators - of the land they once had relatively free access to.
The country’s political and capitalist economic systems have resulted in our farming land being owned by a small number of powerful commercial operators. This has meant that many South Africans in the agricultural sector have, over the years, been pushed off their land and forced to be little more than wage price-takers, selling their time for the lowest wages because of the massive power gap between them and their employers, the land owners and the landless, the rich and the poor.
The entire agricultural system needs to change before we can fully address the problems growing from this power differential. Kobus’ story tries to capture some of the shifts EMG would like to see in the long term: farm labourers getting title deeds to their own land; having a real stake in the running of the business, and its profits; fair wages, good healthcare and living conditions, and a solid education for all their children; the chance to develop their own skills so they can progress up the ranks into semi-skilled and even skilled positions.
EMG works with organisations like the Association for Fairness in Trade (AFIT) and fair trade organisations to foster relationships between farmworkers so that people like the fictional Kobus February can connect with others like himself, so they can share ideas and learn through skills development courses and workshops.
A climate change course offered by AFIT and supported by EMG, for instance, will help someone like Kobus understand where oil comes from, how using it increases carbon emissions, and make the connection between the rising cost of oil and farm inputs which then eat in to the farm’s profit margins. It could help him understand the possible ripple effects of climate change on the agricultural sector, and their jobs: if climate change knocks the fruit harvest year on year, what will that mean for his job?
Many other agricultural practices have implications for someone like Kobus, as well as the environment which his job and the nation’s food security depend on: water and soil management, pollution from fertilisers, the use of pesticides and other agri-chemicals, genetically modified seeds, and more.
Empowerment allows people to view their environment as an asset, rather than just as something to be exploited because someone is desperate for money. Even poor people, who are often so caught up in the daily struggle to survive, start to view their surroundings differently when they see the benefits of living in a healthy, functioning environment. Then they begin to protect it, too.
The Kobus February story, executed by illustrator Chip Snaddon, tries to capture something of this complex relationship the farmworkers have both with their bosses, the food system and the physical environment around them.