Farm strikes: Radical changes needed

| Niall Reddy
Nyala drives through De Doorns. Photo by Kate Stegeman.

Farm workers began the centennial year of the 1913 Land Act with a continuation of the most militant industrial action in the sector in decades. On January 9th, various Western Cape farming towns were turned into warzones as protestors demanding an increase to a minimum R150 per day for farm workers, blockaded highways and set vineyards alight with police using rubber bullets and tear gas.

In De Doorns, the epicentre of the unrest, strikers received widespread condemnation when two journalists were manhandled and their car set alight.

However, the acrimonious form of the strikes must be understood as a product of the social relations prevailing in the region. The dire circumstances of farm workers—many of whom endure feudalistic conditions of exploitation little changed from apartheid—received international attention in 2011 with the publication of a Human Rights Watch investigation (HRW report). Since that time, a culture of denial has characterized official responses to the situation. Helen Zille’s claims that the findings of the HRW report were not representative of the sector as a whole—although disputed by nearly every organization active in the field—have been devastatingly falsified by the extent and intensity of protests in the last months. Subsequent coverage, shadowing Agri Wes-Cape, has tended to asperse the unrest as a ‘political conspiracy’.

My many conversations with strikers in Grabouw and De Doorns did not uncover any evidence of coercion. Instead, what was striking was the way workers viewed this struggle as so much more than a means to wage increases, desperately needed though they are. The worker’s testimonies confirmed the grim picture of routine physical abuse and systematic dehumanization alongside material deprivation. Participants celebrated this strike as a collective affirmation of their dignity against the crushing nexus of farm owners, complicit politicians and local police who enforce their dispossession.

It was a unique experience for many where collective action has been effectively suppressed through ruthless victimization by owners who gain advantages from the fragmentation of workers and their complete dependence on the farms on which they live and work. Less than 5% of farm workers are unionized and casualization and labour broking have spread like wildfire in recent years. Like Marikana, the debilitation of workers’ organizations, and the role of owners and local authorities in this process, must feature centrally in any account of the chaotic path of events.

So too must the heavy-handed reaction of farmers and police. The farmers’ willingness to expend their surplus on quasi-militarization through private security firms, rather than give any ground to workers, reflects the prevalent perception of the fight against R150 as a defence of old ways of life. Some support for this narrative seemingly comes from a report by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy of December last year. The report uses simulations of ‘average’ farms to investigate the various scenarios of wage increases in different agricultural sectors. The key finding from this section of the report is that if wages were to increase to a R104 per day average for permanent workers, the added labour costs would allegedly break the bank for many average farms, forcing closure or further mechanization.

Whether or not most commercial farms can “afford” the increase to R150 per day cannot be conclusively established by the methodology and data employed by BFAP. In the first place, as farmers themselves are quick to point out when insisting that wage bargaining cannot be centralized, profitability is hugely uneven in the sector. The representativeness and the accuracy of the modelling are questionable. This can easily be seen from the wildly fluctuating estimations of future profits for simulated farms, which are also subject to assumptions about global and macroeconomic variables that are notoriously difficult to forecast.

Moreover, the existence of farms with decent labour practices and much higher wages, as well as the fact that some owners now seem willing to negotiate, provides further evidence for the scope for redistribution. Nevertheless, there is every reason to believe that the demand for a doubling of wages, if realized, would engender significant restructuring in a sector squeezed in recent years by monopolistic retailers and rising input prices, as a result of the government’s neoliberal agricultural policy.

To their credit, the BFAP authors do not shy from a full presentation of the dilemma facing the agricultural sector. The second portion of their report concentrates on the implications of various wage scenarios for the subsistence and nutritional needs of farm workers and their dependents. Their startling finding is that even a household with two adults each receiving R150 per day would not meet the nutritional needs of its four members. R150 per day, profane though it seems to the prophets of market justice, does not even transcend the category of starvation wages.

But the conclusions generated in the BFAP report and echoed by most of the media are constrained by the ideological horizons of the authors. The report stands as a contribution to a familiar tradition that is prepared to acknowledge the suffering of workers but ultimately regards their situation as intractable and unavoidable. The most that can be proscribed are a set of weak palliatives to encourage productivity in the sector: the deprivation of workers will only be alleviated by the slow march of market based growth, in some unspecified time frame. Until then workers remain trapped between the rock of exploitation and the hardness of unemployment.

In many cases the complete intransigence of farm owners is explained by the resilience of baasskap and not at all by “economic realities” - here the successful demand for R150 would lead quite simply to a more just distribution. But workers’ organizations need to be frank that, unlike in mining and other sectors, where obscene surpluses could quite easily accommodate demands for a living wage, portions of the agricultural sector are operating closer to the bone and threats of further mechanization and capital flight are not all idle. However, the conclusion of the situation as tragically intractable arises only if one’s purview is the currently existing organization of production. If workers are able to win significant wage increases and resist retrenchments and anti-labour restructuring in the aftermath of the harvest, this might simply lead to an acceleration of smaller, less profitable farms being absorbed in processes of concentration and centralization.

But a humane solution to the conflict, which of course must ultimately entail the achievement of wages far above R150, becomes apparent only when the sanctity of existing property relations, and of production for profit maximisation, are not regarded as absolutes. That is, if the sector cannot currently provide a decent life for those whose sweat produces its value, it must be subject to changes in the system of production-substantial agrarian reform.

In the happiest outcome, where farms genuinely cannot afford living wages with profits greater than those of a bank account, the success of living wage demands will serve to compel a raft of “willing sellers” for the government’s land reform policy that has shifted in rhetoric but not practice in recent years. A government genuinely interested in eradicating exploitation and correcting injustice would stand ready to facilitate the transfer to smallholder and collective ownership and a production system based on human need, food security and ecological justice rather than private profit. Alongside post-settlement technical support, this would include rolling back disastrous de-regulation policies and measures to tackle powerful retailers that have been dominating value chains, as well as interventions to control food price inflation.

Reviving the moribund land reform program in South Africa will be a protracted process requiring the emergence of powerful and far-stretching rural movements and general shifts in the balance of political forces. But the struggle for R150 is infused with a radical content that will quickly pose the question of land to a historic sector-wide organization of workers and represents a major step forward in the level of development and consciousness of the political forces that will drive agrarian change. To condemn the strike based on what the market supposedly permits, is to stand in defence of an atavistic system of exploitation that is an unconscionable stain on the new South Africa, and to entrench the national low-wage regime that stifles development while creating a surplus of both idle capital and labour.

For now, if police showed a little less zeal in meting out brutality to those fighting for a decent life, and a little more in protecting the rights of workers to organize, we would likely see a strike that would give less ammunition to those who make a habit of telling the poor how to resist from the safety of privilege.

Reddy is a researcher as the Alternative Information and Development Centre.

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