File image. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Parliament – A University of Cape Town academic was accused of racism and “white arrogance” on Wednesday after presenting to Parliament’s portfolio committee on land with findings from an International Labour Organisation study suggesting a lack of attention to global market realities had exacerbated the plight of local farm workers.

The report to MPs by Margareet Visser made the point that government had, in forming its policies, not given due account to how deregulation and dwindling subsidies had impacted on labourers way down in the value chain of agriculture production.

The result, Visser quoted from a two-year study released in June 2015, was the increasing casualisation of farm labour as a standard response from producers grappling with lower prices.

MPs pressed the presenting team, which included the ILO’s deputy director for southern Africa, Joni Musabayana, to speak in more detail on farm evictions. They also suggested that the ILO research team had failed to interview organised labour and to take into account how labour brokers exploited farm workers, with the ANC’s Phumzile Mnguni saying he was forced to question the integrity of the ILO study and those who compiled it.

Visser responded that she could not as this was not the focus of the study and that it had been overtaken by casualisation as the dominant trend in farm labour. She said she too was frustrated not to have definitive figures on evictions at hand, adding: “I am not a magician who can pull it from my sleeve.”

At this, Economic Freedom Fighters MP Sam Matiase charged: “That is white arrogance, it is white arrogance.” He went on to suggest that a focus on global market realities impacting farmers was spurious until historical injustices had been addressed.

“It is EFF policy that there should be no privately owned land, all land must be expropriated and revert back to the state,” he reminded reporters.

Visser noted that the study had found that farm labourers faced poor conditions even on land reform farms, and that if the prevalent developments in agriculture were ignored by policy makers, the work force’s plight would not necessarily improve even if all farmland were transferred to black owners.

She said there was a cautionary tale in the fate of South Africa’s clothing and textile industry, crippled by closures as imports flood the market after tariff barriers came down.

“Virtually the same thing is happening in agriculture,” she said, adding that at the moment, wine farms in particular were finding themselves under pressure from international market forces coupled with less direct and indirect support as barriers and subsidies were withdrawn.

After hearing her response, United Democratic Movement MP Mncedisi Filtane charged: “This is racism we have here”, while ANC MP Lumka Yengeni said parliamentary committees had the right not only to question the findings of reports presented to them, but the credentials and backgrounds of the researchers involved.

“Ms Visser, we can question her background too,” she said. Asked later whether she took issue with the researcher’s background, Yengeni said she did not know it and was speaking generally.

The terms of reference of the research study was determined by a reference committee which included ANC MPs.

Musabayana told the committee that the team conducted extensive interviews with non-governmental agencies and representatives of organised labour, adding: “We would not be the ILO if we did not engage organised labour.”

However, he added that he believed any attempt to impose an outright ban on labour brokering seemed doomed given a recent ruling by Namibia’s Constitutional Court.

“Namibia tried to ban private employment agencies. It went to the Constitutional Court and (the government) lost there. The provision in question is almost a cut and paste of your constitution, I am very sorry to bring to your attention.”

Visser stressed that she wanted to acknowledge the extent to which poor labour practices and relations persisted, but to point out that as more labourers found themselves reduced to seasonal workers, labour brokers served the purpose of alerting them to work elsewhere once their short-term employment with one farmer came to an end.

It would be worth exploring policies that helped them set up “worker co-operatives” as an alternative that could fill this role without exploitation, she said.

The study found that the number of farming units had declined by 30 percent in 10 years as insolvency amongst farmers reached its highest levels in 30 years and that the number of farm workers in the country had declined by 30 percent over the past 20 years.

While it found that farmers were fairly compliant with mandatory leave and working hours, most farm workers in the Western Cape earned less than R130 (per day) last year but that those in the Western Cape and Gauteng were still “relatively better off than those in the rest of the country”.

The researchers conducted 10 case studies, each consisting of five farms, in eight provinces. They interviewed 48 farmers and 208 farm workers individually and conducted group interviews with 250 labourers, and a further 90 interviews with government, agriculture organisations, trade unions and NGOs.

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