Unions in the agricultural sector believe that a lack of political will is to blame for the failure to enforce the law when farmworkers are being transported on the back of open trucks, leading to tragic accidents that have claimed many lives.
Their anger was heightened this week after three farmworkers were killed and more than 50 injured when a truck they were travelling in lost control in Philadelphia.
They were on their way to a Durbanville farm on Tuesday when the incident occurred.
In June last year, 35 farmworkers were injured when the truck they were being transported in overturned on the R45 between Klapmuts and Simondium near Groot Simonsvlei. In January 2021 a farmworker was killed and 12 injured in Worcester when a truck carrying 38 farmworkers lost control and crashed.
In April 2020, nine farmworkers were killed when the truck they were travelling in collided with another truck on the N1 between Touws River and De Doorns. About 18 people were injured during that incident.
Regulation 247 of the Road Traffic Act, 1996 (Act No. 93 of 1996) stipulates that the vehicle transporting farm workers must be roadworthy and not overloaded.
It also states that persons may under certain circumstances be transported on freight trucks. However, such a vehicle must be covered to a minimum height of 350mm above where people are sitting or 900mm if a person is standing, to prevent passengers from falling off.
However, unions and farmworker rights groups argue that this is often overlooked, leading to incidents such as the Philadelphia crash on Tuesday.
Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) national organiser Karel Swart said open truck transportation of farmworkers remained a feature in rural communities.
“Government is fully aware of the extent of the problem but lacks the political will to enforce the safe and dignified transportation of vulnerable farm workers.
Despite the countless farm worker deaths over the years, very little has been done to stop farm bosses and labour brokers from subjecting workers to this dehumanising and deadly form of transport. Ensuring safe and dignified transportation for farm workers does not receive the required urgency from the government and the agricultural sector. All stakeholders have once again failed farm workers,” he said.
The union also lamented what it has described as a short-lived public outcry which very quickly died down until the next fatal accident, but there are no consequences for those responsible.
“No one is held accountable for the deaths of farm workers.
“This lack of accountability demonstrates a reluctance by the government and the agricultural sector to deal decisively with unsafe worker transportation to bring an end to the deaths and injuries of vulnerable farm workers who risk their lives just to put some food on the table for their families and who labour so hard to feed the nation.”
They have called for an investigation into the latest incident and demanded action be taken against those responsible for the death of the workers including culpable homicide charges being brought against them.
“CSAAWU demands that the Western Cape MECs of Agriculture and Mobility investigate which farm bosses are still subjecting workers to this deadly form of transportation.
Government must implement stricter regulations for the transportation of farm workers.”
Agricultural, Food, Fishing and Retail Industry Workers' Union (AFRIWU) general secretary Gafieldien Benjamin said, as part of a collective of trade unions, they had made representations to authorities on why farmworkers should be transported in buses and taxis or remodified trucks with roofs and windows and fitted with seats and seatbelts.
“We want this tragic incident to highlight just one aspect in the plight of farm workers and what they have to endure on a normal day to put food on their tables whilst feeding the nation.
Travelling on open transport without any safety features and measures is the norm for them.
“It cannot continue any longer.
It should either be phased out over a short period of time or it must be abolished with intent,” said Benjamin.
He said the union demanded a full disclosure on the road worthiness of the vehicles involved and if all drivers that were involved in the latest incident had valid drivers’ licences.
“We urge the relevant Western Cape Government departments, the Department of Labour and Employment and SAPS to do a thorough investigation on who was at fault in this regard.
“It is also important during such an investigation to ascertain if the farmers were compliant with all legislation that legitimise their operations as a business entity.”
Western Cape Employment and Labour department spokesperson Jason Lloyd said they would be meeting with the farmer on Monday while his national counterpart Petunia Lessing, said they did not have jurisdiction on matters of safe transportation of workers.
“The Department of Transport would have jurisdiction.
“However, the Department of Employment and Labour, through the Compensation Fund, is able to step in to assist with possible compensation for occupational incidents.”
Christopher Kleynhans from Loch Lynne farm said they would respond to questions on Friday.