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SA’s recent labour unrest has been a long time coming

There should have been no surprise or outrage expressed by mining companies, agribusiness, and government officials about the recent explosion of strikes and protests on mines and farms. And trade unionists across the board should not have been caught flat-footed by the outbursts of anger that erupted in the North West, Limpopo and now in the Western Cape.

That many of these parties expressed surprise is a clear indication that they had been smugly complacent; that some then voiced outrage, along with calls for harsh crackdowns, seems a reflection of gross hypocrisy: no interested party can claim to have been ignorant of the plentiful warnings about what was brewing, especially on the farms and plantations, but also on the mines.

There have been reminders throughout the years, not the least of which being Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s repeated warning about a “ticking time bomb” of poverty and unemployment. But most of these warnings were ignored – until August last year.

It was in that month that this column noted: “The plight of a probable majority of farm workers in South Africa has finally made it onto the main news pages and has led radio and television newscasts.”

“Finally made it” was the phrase used because similar complaints, relating to mines as well as farms, along with often well-documented evidence, had been available for 10 years and more.

The evidence that last year triggered a minor media storm, along with implied warnings of trouble to come, was contained in a report by the Africa section of Human Rights Watch.

The report, entitled “Ripe with Abuse: Human rights conditions in South Africa’s fruit and wine industries”, was based on more than 260 interviews and covered 60 farms in the Western Cape.

The survey and the interviews were conducted over a nine-month period from September 2010.

After a flurry of publicity that raised hopes among farm workers, especially in the Western Cape, nothing changed.

But anger grew in the agricultural sector, especially because the Human Rights Watch report had revealed nothing new; it amounted in many ways to a reiteration of complaints lodged over the years by various groups such as the Black Association of the Agricultural Sector. This group and others consistently called on farmers to “open the books” to reveal whether they were paying a “fair wage”.

The association conducted a two-year survey on 65 farms and also released its results last year.

The major complaints listed were not only about pay, but about abuses of the existing labour laws and of rights enshrined in the constitution.

Because, as has now become clear as the current strike wave erupted, pay demands are merely the symptom of a much deeper-seated malaise and one that has gone untreated despite the desperate pleas of the working poor, on farms, in forests and mines.

At fault are not just mining companies and farm and plantation owners who adopt a cavalier attitude to labour and human rights. Equally guilty are government agencies that do not enforce existing laws and, in the case of farm workers, a department and ministers that establish poverty level minimum wages.

However, agricultural unions and human rights groups tend to agree that, while conditions on many farms in the Western Cape are bad, they are perhaps marginally better on average than the conditions endured by many farm workers in regions of Limpopo, the North West and Mpumalanga. And in the agricultural sector, forestry workers receive the lowest pay and endure the worst conditions.

Yet this is a sector in which the government – through its holdings in state forests – has a direct interest. Like mining and farming, the forestry sector also employs a large number of temporary workers, often hired through labour brokers.

In the De Doorns area of the Hex River Valley where the Western Cape’s “Marikana moment” erupted, there are as many casual workers, employed mainly during harvest time, as there are permanent workers. And there are also many unemployed men and women and their families desperately hoping for work.

Over the years the number of work seekers has grown. Like Marikana, widely seen as the trigger for the current unrest, De Doorns also features shack settlements that have mushroomed in recent years. As more and more hungry and desperate people move to these potential sources of work, squalid conditions and competition for jobs increases.

This creates an environment readily exploited by unscrupulous labour brokers and employers. With a surplus of workers desperate for jobs, they are able to drive down already low rates of pay. In the De Doorns area this led to outbreaks of xenophobic violence in 2008 as South African workers turned against migrants from Lesotho and Zimbabwe who they accused of “working cheaper”.

Anger has again burst into the open, although not, this time, aimed at other workers. Farm owners are the target because, the workers complain, many simply flout the labour laws.

This has led to a demand repeated over the years: “Where are the labour inspectors?” This week strikers also asked: “Where were the [established] trade unions as the abuses continued?”

Cosatu is now very much in evidence, but the fact that there has been a high degree of nihilistic anarchy in parts of the Boland this week reveals the absence of established, trade union organisation.

However, 11 organisations, including unions, have now come together as the Coalition of Farm Workers to establish some control, at least in the De Doorns area. But as the protests spread it is obvious that there are any number of “ticking time bombs”.

They comprise pent up anger, frustration, bitterness and desperation and when they explode, the results are invariably messy, often ugly but amount, effectively, to demands for fairness and democracy.

Obviously, such situations can be taken advantage of, distorted, suppressed or betrayed. But unless the underlying causes are comprehensively dealt with, the anger and resentment may ebb, but perhaps only into even more lethal wells of bitterness, creating bigger time bombs for the future.

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