Thursday, 8 November 2012

Fire in the Vineyards: The Making of a Farm Worker Uprising in the Hex River Valley

by Chris Webb, The Amandla Blog

As labour tensions continue to simmer in South Africa’s mining industry, farm workers in the Hex River Valley have called attention to the fact that they earn some of the lowest wages in the country. Their voices, so often silenced by the paternalistic relations that still define rural social relations, have once again been dismissed by commercial agricultural interests and their allied political leaders as the voices of mob, directed by shadow ‘third force.’ In reality the deprivations of hunger, poverty and violence are the driving force behind this uprising, as anyone who has visited the shack settlements that skirt the N1 highway in this region and will know. In the township of Stofland workers survive on seasonal work on the farms (often for as low as R65 a day) and rely on social grants and family remittances for the rest of the year. Few trade unions have made inroads in this region, and the firing of live rounds on striking workers by farmers demonstrates the brutal face of modern industrial relations in parts of the agricultural sector.

The current strike wave began on August 27, 2012 when a group of 350, predominantly female, farm workers on Keurboschkloof grape farm just outside of De Doorns walked off the job. As they marched toward the farm one of the striking workers told me: “One day the farm changes owner and he lowered our money. He said to us you are all working for 75 rand a day. That’s why we are here fighting today!” While wages were a key bargaining point, other issues included the fact that of the 350 workers only 18 were permanent with some employed as temporary workers for more than 14 years. According to the strikers the farm’s previous owner had fallen ill and sold the farm to South African Fruit Exporters (SAFE), a major fruit production and export company with headquarters in Mauritius and 21 fruit farms spread across South Africa and Zimbabwe. When the owner died SAFE told all the workers to sign a new contract that dramatically cut wages and eliminated bonus pay at the end of the season. Workers refused to sign the contract and immediately organized a march to the farm to demand their old wages back. The story of the change in farm ownership is telling of the ways in which global value chains (particularly those in the export sector) are increasingly reliant on cheap and flexible labour.

The majority of the Keurboschkloof workers live in Stofland, a dusty settlement on the edges of the N1 highway. Stofland was established in 2006 as a transitional camp for those who were living in cramped and overcrowded houses in another township in the region. While a number of RDP houses have been constructed in the region, there was never a transition and Stofland remains an informal township, poorly serviced and overcrowded as numerous migrant workers arrive each harvesting season (December - May) in search of work. Anton, a Zimbabwean worker who has been living in the valley for a number of years told me most migrant workers arrive for the harvesting season and rent rooms or a backyard shacks in Stofland. The work that they find on the farms does not pay well, apparently as low as R70 a day. Some strikers have told reporters they were making as low as R63 a day. “That day is long, it is more than 10 hours of work,” Anton told me. “But that’s the same on almost all of these farms. They (the farmers) are really taking an advantage. They’ve got that club which they call HTA (Hex Valley Table Grape Association), and they’ve got an advantage because the government that is in control of this province, all of them they belong to that same party. So they’ve got a very big advantage because some of them they have support of councillors.”

The Hex River valley produces almost entirely table grapes, a relatively labour intensive crop often destined for the export market. Labour is drawn primarily from within the valley either from a permanent on-farm workforce or from the townships on the valley. The peak season (early December) is the most labour intensive and a large number of seasonal workers are hired. The ways in which these workers are recruited and utilized has undergone significant changes. A 1976 study of seasonal migration in the Western Cape noted that seasonal workers were traditionally hired from nearby farms either directly by the farmer or through a local intermediary. The relationship between worker and employer was, in this case, quite clear. A 2008 study by UCT researcher Jan Theron suggests that today seasonal workers today are usually not residents on the farms and are often employed by third party contractors, more commonly known as labour brokers. While migrant workers are often employed through these contractors, Theron’s study indicates that there is little evidence to suggest that they are paid less than domestic workers, which contradicts the claim that they are stealing jobs from South African workers by driving down wage rates— the claim made in previous spates of xenophobic violence in the valley.
The presence of labour brokers is common in the valley as it is throughout the rural areas of the Western Cape. Commercial agriculture is increasingly reliant on pools of flexible labour in order to meet the tight production schedules demanded by export agents and to compete in the world market. In the face of more stringent labour and tenure legislation, farmers are wary of taking on permanent workers and have consequently expanded their seasonal and temporary workforce. This is easily done in rural areas where the townships that ring rural towns provide a steady stream on cheap labour. Recently there have been attempts to regulate these labour arrangements and protect vulnerable through amendments to the Labour Relations Act. In short, the amendments stop short of banning labour brokers (the call coming from COSATU) and propose a new system of regulation in which contract workers would be treated as permanent after being employed in the same workplace for longer than six months. It is not surprising then that both the national commercial farmers association AgriSA and its Western Cape wing Agri Wes-Cape have opposed the bills claiming they are “employer antagonistic” and “may well lead to increased mechanisation and the automation of farming enterprises and job shedding.”

In some respects they are correct. The introduction of tenure security legislation caused many farmers to shed labour in order to avoid the housing and service costs for workers. The only way to ensure compliance with legislation, prevent evictions and reduce inequality in rural areas is by giving farm workers a voice and severing the bonds of paternalism that mask the hidden abuses that occur on farms. And yet most trade unions have largely ignored the plight of farm workers. Out of the 254 registered trade unions in the country an estimated 15 are engaged in the agricultural sector. It is estimated that fewer than 6 percent of farm workers belong to trade unions. The adoption of legislation aimed at protecting farm workers has not been accompanied by any significant effort to organize farm workers, and at present there are no agricultural bargaining councils anywhere in the country. On August 7, 2012 COSATU and AgriSA released a joint statement claiming in the future they would “work together to solve problems affecting workers, farmers, consumers and the country as a whole.” There seems little interest on the part of commercial farmers (in the De Doorns area and beyond) to recognize trade unions or establish a bargaining council. At the same time COSATU has not made a serious attempts at organizing rural workers. It follows that the only way farm worker demands are taken seriously are when they burn vineyards and blockade a highway.
The worker’s demand for a minimum wage of R150 a day is also not unreasonable given the immense profitability of the table grape industry. The export value of South African fresh grapes in 2006 stood at $257 million USD and South Africa was ranked fifth in world net export production, and by 2011 the total value of grape exports had jumped to $389 million. The Hex River area packs the highest number of cartons for the export market in the country, with 18.5 million 4.5kg cartons packed for export in the 2009/10 season alone. According to a 2010 report by the National Agricultural Marketing council table grape production in 2009/2010 was the highest in South Africa since the start of the deregulated era—deregulation of the fruit sector occurred following the adoption of GEAR in the late 1990s.

It should also be clear at this point that the provincial DA is acting in the interests of commercial farmers with little regard for the plight of rural workers. Western Cape Agriculture and Rural Development MEC Gerrit Van Rensburg has suggested that it is “not farm workers involved in this strike, its people from Stofland and other areas.” In reality the majority of those who live in Stofland are farm workers as there are few other sources of employment in the region. Van Rensburg has also described the protest as a “politically motivated action, and not a labour protest,” which is a deliberate attempt to dismiss the very real grievances of rural workers over rates of pay and working conditions. The fact that strikers chased Western Cape premier Helen Zille out of the valley indicates the low opinion the rural poor have of the DA.

At the same time the ANC should not escape criticism, particularly when it comes to issues of rural development and farm worker rights. After the 2009 election the ANC made agrarian reform and rural development one of its key policy priorities—the theme of President Jacob Zuma’s ‘100 days in office’ speech was agrarian reform and rural development. While rhetorically there has been a shift from land reform to a more militant sounding agrarian transformation, little has changed for farm workers. The 2011 Green Paper on Land Reform is hardly a decisive break with past agrarian reform models which relied on trickle-down, market-directed approaches to rural development. A rural development plan that aims to improve wage rates and ensure food security would go a long way in preventing future violent disputes in rural municipalities as would a serious attempt by trade unions to initiate agricultural bargaining councils and worker organization.