File photo: Leon Lestrade

“The only ones who will enjoy the fruit of this summer season will be the birds,” was the ominous message from yesterday’s protest meeting in Ashton. Thousands of workers turned out at meetings across the Hex River Valley, at which organisers were given an “overwhelming mandate” to push for a daily minimum wage of R150.

Mercia Andrews of Trust for Community Outreach and Education said about 1 000 workers attended a mass meeting in Ashton alone. Andrews said it was important to establish farmworkers’ committees so that the farmworkers themselves played a central role in voicing their demands.

Farmers tend to rely on seasonal workers, who generally have little opportunity to organise and who tend to be regarded in dysfunctional stereotypes by the farmers.

The seasonal nature of much of farm work and pressure on labour costs has resulted in many farmers focusing on a relatively small core of permanent workers. As the “Capturing the Gains” report by Margareet Visser of UCT and Stephanie Barrientos of Manchester University said, this strategy had its problems.

The farmers interviewed during the extensive research undertaken by the two academics complained about a shortage of “reliable labour” and sometimes simply about a lack of labour. This “was surprising given the prevailing belief that unemployment is rife in rural areas and that most people would jump at the opportunity of a job… The most common reasons offered were that locals ‘did not want to work’; that they could fall back on government grants; that they were unreliable and absconded without leave… Time and again the opinion was also expressed that agriculture has become an unpopular career choice. General workers preferred jobs in industries in the city because countryside wages were too low.”

Although the farmers said they preferred to employ locals, the difficulty in getting sufficient numbers meant that there was reliance on migrant labour, in particular from Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The report tells of one instance where a farmer applied for corporate permits to employ Zimbabweans and Mozambicans. “However, the Department of Labour was not convinced that they had made sufficient effort to find South African labour and suggested that it would readily find them a thousand South African workers. Of this promised workforce the Department eventually only provided 27 applicants. When (the farmer) went to collect them at the department’s offices 17 of the 27 workers got on the truck. The day after their arrival on the farm, 11 hiked back to the city, complaining that they did not like the conditions on the farm.” After this incident the company operating the farm was issued with the permit.

The situation not only highlights deep-seated prejudices but also the difficulties that farmworkers might face when attempting to develop organisational capacity.

These are two considerations that will make resolution of the current problems extremely challenging. -Business Report