Human Rights Violations on Farms Extensive and Not Exceptional

rights agriculture ngos farmworkers
Monday, 26 March, 2012 - 15:56

Commercial farmers should work with all stakeholders in the agricultural sector, to address challenges experienced by farmers, in order to improve their working conditions

As predicated, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report ‘Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries’ caused quite a media stir for exactly one week. The responses were scripted: the white farmers vociferously denied its findings, questioned the methodology, as did the Democratic Alliance who counts among its support base on white commercial farmers. Government was ominously quiet while the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape came out in condemnation of the findings.

We, farm worker NGOs and trade unions equally predictably seized the opportunity to again restate our long cried assertion: human rights violations on farms extensive and not exceptional.

Now that the dust has settled down and the screams across the political isles have settled, it may be important to look at the report with sobriety and suggest a few concrete steps forward.

In truth, the HRW report made no new claims that have not been firmly in the public domain for at least 10 years.  The findings merely confirm the long-standing assertions of South African human rights organisations and the two investigations carried out by our own South African Human Rights Commission.

The 96-page report documents conditions that include on-site housing that is unfit for living, exposure to pesticides without proper safety equipment, lack of access to toilets or drinking water while working and efforts to block workers from forming unions.

The history of commercial agriculture (slavery under colonialism and land dispossession coupled with continued virtual slave labour under apartheid) lends itself to the probability of human rights violations of farm workers. There is an historical basis for assuming that all is not well. For this very reason, South Africa is classified  a high-risk ‘ethical trade’ source country for European purchasers of South African agricultural produce, with many retailers requiring ethical audits in accordance with the assurance to their consumers that labour rights of workers in supplier countries have not been violated in the process of production

Whenever a report of this nature is released (HRW, Nkuzi Evictions Survey of 2004, South African Human Rights Commission Hearings) there is a questioning of methodology and data validity from the industry. Yet, they have no counter evidence to present. The old dictum on counting holds: we count only what is important. So it is for us significant that Agri-SA is not in a position to itself provide credible data on the state of human rights on farms.

The same holds truth for government. Certainly the state has a responsibility to track the conditions of vulnerable communities as a basis for action? In the absence of which, what is government basing its interventions? Instead, on each of these occasions, government is left fumbling in its attempts at neutrality. But certainly, a neutral state is not what is required in this context? Certainly, government, and the ANC specifically, in theme with its Polokwane agrarian reform resolutions, have to come out strongly on the side of the dispossessed and exploited? For too long our state has positioned itself as the neutral ‘broker’ with devastating consequences for the poor in our land.

The irony is that the state is already ineffectively spending significant resources on what is called: farm worker development, enlistment, and empowerment across at least four departments and across the various spheres of government. But this is carried out without any concerted attempts at coordination. In the Western Cape (the province with the single biggest concentration of farm workers of any province in the country) for example, the departments of social development, labour, rural development and agriculture, safety and security, all have initiatives or directorates (with budgets) dedicated to the upliftment of farm workers and dwellers.  Yet, there is very little coordination or an attempt to bring the various plans together.  As farm worker organisations, we run ourselves ragged trying to keep up with all these useless meetings.

Regardless of the forum, the theme remains constant: pass the buck!

These farmers are not serious about transformation and are only willing to come to the table when their markets are under threat through media exposure of farm worker violations. Then they are more than willing to spend their time and resources building facades of change for the benefit of the European markets. Fruit SA refuses to work with any worker organisation and instead has spent significant amount of resources on window dressing, what it calls an ethical auditing programme carried out of farmers, by farmers - trustworthy indeed.

Farmer bodies which are not willing to work with legitimate worker organisations must be willing to suffer the consequences. One of the first responses my organisation received when the report was published was from British consumers groups wanting to know if they should be boycotting South African produce.

For the longest time, we have cautioned against the idea of a boycott of produce.

But, the time has come where workers are starting to ask well, what are we really benefitting from these exports? According to the Agri-Census, income-generated through large scale commercial agriculture has benefitted extensively form the post-apartheid opening of the markets. The income generated through agriculture has increased four-fold from R20 - 80 million between 1994 and 2004. Yet, workers share of this income has stayed a constant 1.01 percent (yes, there is a zero after the coma!)

The human rights bodies and organisations are spending so much money on these surveys. Let us reach an agreement that anyone who has ever interacted with farm workers know these accusations to be true.

We should not be trapped in a paradigm of good versus bad farmer. It’s not about the individual goodness of farmers. It’s a discussion that calls into question how people on whose backs the industry is built, can work an entire lifetime and leave the farm at the end of their lives, worked old, sick and with literally nothing but debt to their names.

- Fatima Shabodien, Executive Director for Women on Farms Project. This article was first published by the SABC News. It is republished here with the permission of the SABC.

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