Briefing in parliament by the ILO on the report on living and working conditions on farms

The Portfolio Committees on Rural Development and Land Reform called a joint sitting with the Portfolio Committees of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Labour and Human Settlements to a briefing by the ILO on the findings of its investigation into living and working conditions on farms. The ILO offered to do research into the living and working conditions of farmworkers in 2011 after the then chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Rural Development and Land Reform called for independent research into such conditions. The ILO coordinated and paid for the research.

The Chairperson made some opening statements. She said that the ESTA Amendment Bill was before the committee and they wanted to interrogate the ILO report before dealing with the Bill.

The ILO deputy-director present – Joni Musabayana and Margareet Visser, one of the researchers appeared before the committee.

The ILO deputy-director thanked the Portfolio Committee for requesting the ILO to do this research. Margareet Visser did the presentation. The full presentation is available on request. She said that the study was done against the background of the Human Rights Watch report and the 2012 farmworkers’ strike. She explained the methodology. She said that the researchers focused on the more labour intensive commodities. They conducted 10 case studies, 3 of which were in the Western Cape, because it was considered a hotspot at the time. Each case study consisted of 5 farms. The researchers requested names of farms from producers organisations, trade unions and NGO’s. Individual -as well as group interviews were done. They also did a literature review.

Ms Visser then sketched the background to the study. She said that legislation was extended to farmworkers in the 1990’s. Tenure legislation was enacted during this time. The sector was deregulated. This has led to a cut throat commercial environment. Producers have consequently become price takers. Farming units have declined by 30 percent. The average solvency of farms is at its worst levels in 30 years.

The report argues that markets have changed. Big supermarket chains like Wallmart are very powerful. Farmers have very little control over prices. Farmers responded to this changed environment through increased casualisation, thus less permanent workers and less people living on farms. Municipalities are not coping with the influx of people.

Regarding evictions, Ms Visser said that it was very difficult to get reliable data. Records that do exist differ between DRDLR and municipalities. What are you counting – eviction notices, actual evictions or claims of evictions? She could not see how other researchers can claim numbers because the data is so bad. She suggested that the Department should rather focus on practical solutions rather than trying to record data.

Ms Visser also claimed that both workers and farmers do not understand their ESTA rights. She said that municipalities needed assistance with their emergency housing plans.

From the report it was clear that there is a voluntary move of people off farm. On cannot assume that the overcrowding of rural towns is the consequence of evictions only. Those who are on farms want to stay there and those who live off farm, do not want to go back to the farms.

Overall compliance with labour legislation was high. The researchers were pleasantly surprised by this. There is however difference in compliance between permanent and seasonal workers. There seems to be better compliance in Western Cape and Sunday River Valley. These are areas that are subject to ethical trade audits.

With regards to wages, the report stated that the majority of farmers paid the minimum wage. Few farmers can afford the wage that COSATU demands. The dilemma is exactly what BFAP pointed out: farmworkers cannot live on R150 per day and farmers cannot afford to pay R150.

There seems to be a differential between provinces in wages with workers in Limpopo earning the least. Ms Visser suggested that this may be an indication for the Department of Labour of where to focus their energy.

Some of the recommendations of the report are:

• Change labour legislation;
• More legal support and training;
• Closer cooperation between DOL and ethical trade initiatives;
• Labour brokering should be better regulated.
• Open up new export markets.
• Eliminate non-tariff trade barriers.
• Provide more support for on farm housing.
• Public private partnerships for building more off farm housing.
• More financial support to rural municipalities.
• Improve public transport in rural areas.

Parliamentarians were then given an opportunity for questions and comments:

Mr Filtane (UDM) said that the report confirmed a lot of what he had suspected. He welcomed the fact that it goes into the reasons for people moving off farms. He wanted to know what can be done to improve the situation, particularly in view of the drought? How do we encourage farmworkers and farmers to build more housing on farms? He felt that farmers do not want this responsibility.

Mr Mathiase from the EFF said that the report is a reflection of failure of policy. What is not clear is what is happening on farms with respect to education and farm schools? Farmworkers are worse off now than under apartheid. The withdrawal of state subsidies is a major challenge. Transport is a key issue. What is Government doing to enforce the minimum wage? He said that this was a slave system and had to change.

Mr Mnguni from the ANC felt that study is not conclusive on evictions and the tenure question. We wanted to get a sense of what causes evictions. The views of organised labour and NGO’s do not seem to have been taken on board. The drought period is not covered by the study. We need a further study on the impact of the drought. We must address the issue of super profits. Labour brokering – the study seems very sympathetic to labour brokering. I disagree with this. It is unacceptable that seasonal workers get paid less than permanent workers.

Another ANC member (Mr Madella): The report does not deal with disability on farms. Farmworkers did not enjoy the benefits from the profits that farmers made in the past. In the days of the marketing boards farmworkers also did not get good wages. What control can the state take in this situation? State control of all means of production?

Female ANC member: How can it be allowed that farmworkers be transported on tractors?

Annette Steyn (DA): said that she was on the Portfolio Committee when Stone Sizane requested such an independent report. It followed on the Human Rights Watch report. Regarding evictions: it is a constant struggle to get reliable stats. Whose responsibility is it to keep these stats? Were any land reform farms included in the study? The report clearly show how legislation can have unintended consequences. We need to get a briefing by BFAP on the drought and its likely impact.

Mr Musabayana from the ILO responded that the timing of the report was of relevance as the researchers could not take the drought into account. The committee must advise whether it required further work to be done on the drought. He explained that the ILO is a tripartite organisation. As such, they always include all three constituencies. They have engaged with civil society on this report and are still doing so on the results of this study. On the issue of labour brokering, the ILO has a convention on private employment agencies. The Employment Services Act deals with this. Globally, the route that most countries has taken is regulation rather than banning. In Namibia they tried to ban labour brokering and ran into constitutional difficulties.

Margareet Visser stated that she acknowledge that there are bad labour relations between farmers and workers, there is a history to this. She said that South Africa was in danger of losing our agricultural sector like we lost our textile industry. She felt that whilst we should not sweep the historical issues under the carpet, we must not lose our industry.

Miss Visser said that the education of children on farms was not part of the scope of their work.

She also stated that she was of the opinion that the minimum wage is too low. She explained that the researchers did not focus that much on evictions as the majority of farmworkers already live off farm. She felt that attention should rather be focused on improving the conditions of seasonal workers.

She confirmed that in each case study the researchers spoke to trade unions and NGO’s. Some land reform farms were included in the study. Indications are that conditions are even poorer on those farms. She was of the view that even if we had 100 percent land reform tomorrow, the new farmers will face the same structural problems and also struggling to pay higher wages.

Ms Visser mentioned that DAFF has started commodity value chain round table discussions. There is a lot of potential in this. There might be synergy with the land right management committees.It is not in the power of one stakeholder to deal with this, it has to be a collective effort.

The Chairperson then allowed some follow up comments and questions. Mr Mnguni from the ANC felt that the presenters were being over defensive. He mentioned Marxist law of dialectics. He said that the world order is not static. No wonder that historically there were utterances of ‘Kill the boer, kill the farmer.’

Mr Filtane from the UDM said that he did not get a reply from the presenter on his questions. He complained that the presenter was sarcastic and made sweeping statements. He wanted to know on what basis the presenter can claim that the conditions on land reform farms is worse than on white commercial farms?

Mr Mathiase from the EFF: How can the historical slave relations and wages of farmworkers be resolved? We must expose white privilege. We then need to deal with the super exploitation of farmworkers and their families.

Ms Yengeni from the ANC, who is the chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Labour had the following critics: ‘You mentioned that in the Western Cape the eviction stats were not available. Yet you concluded that the rate of evictions have gone down. How can you conclude that? Regarding the sectoral determination, you concluded that this caused job losses. Can you substantiate that? You aver that employers are unable to pay the wages. What proof is there for this? How were the workers who were interviewed, selected? Where did the interviews take place? Which trade unions did you interview?’

Ms Zelda Jongbloed from the DA asked the presenter whether she was aware of farmworkers’ packages that were restructured following the increase in the minimum wage? She also wanted to check whether there was a nexus between higher profitability and higher wages?

Mr Nchabeleng from the ANC commented that I although farmworkers housing in the Western Cape has improved over the years, during an oversight visit they saw farmworkers sleeping in shipping containers. He said that some of the people who own those farms are rich. ‘We even found a room where kids were kept in the same room with chemicals. There are more farmers doing bad things than doing good. There are serious cases of racism on the farms. Big Business in South Africa does not have the interest of the workers at heart. Workers are replaced with non-documented foreign workers. But let us be tolerant and listen to each other.’

Mr Musabayana from the ILO apologised for the manner of responding which has offended some of the members. He pleaded that the parties should focus on the issues on the table. On the question of what can be done regarding farm tenure he said: ‘This is clearly a burning issue. I am sorry that this issue has not been dealt with as extensively as you may have wished. It is clear that there has been movement off the farms and this has had certain consequences. It seems that farmers lack the appetite to address the housing issues and take up the existing subsidy. Maybe we can consider the terms of reference again. As for apportioning blame, the ILO does not work in that way. We promote dialogue. Further research may be required on the profitability issue. On how much of the profit goes to the workers, it will be debated in Geneva by the ILO in June and it will be a contentious issue.’

With regards to the situation on land reform farms, Ms Visser replied that admittedly their sample was very small. In the specific case studies, smaller black farmers were indeed less compliant. On the selection of farms, we asked unions and farmworker organisations to submit farms. When researchers arrived on the farms, they requested lists of workers and randomly picked names from those lists. They also interviewed workers off farm. The researchers spoke to FAWU, BAWUSA and many other unions.

There is a section in the report dealing with the profitability of different commodities. The wine industry for example is under a lot of stress. We are seeing a lot of farm consolidation.

The Chairperson suggested a further meeting with the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform on the issue of evictions. She said that it was clear that we have to strengthen our policy monitoring. She concluded by stating that there is clearly a need for some follow up research as well.

Annelize Crosby, Agri SA Advisor Legal and Land Affairs, Parliamentary Liaison