NEWS | CAPE TOWN 

Women farm workers’ rights routinely violated

Government unresponsive say workers

Photo of protesters
Women farm workers march in Cape Town to the provincial legislature and then to the Department of Labour. Photo: Laura Bratton
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Farmers’ organisation AgriSA has dismissed the findings of a survey by the Women on Farms Project (WFP) released last month. The report highlights labour violations and the poor working conditions of women farm workers, many of them seasonal workers.

The report was compiled from 343 questionnaires completed by farm workers in the Northern and Western Cape as well as information collected during several consultative workshops with workers in the Stellenbosch area.

This week, in response to questions by GroundUp on the report, AgriSA Western Cape spokesperson Jeanne Boshoff said they could not comment on the allegations in the report without exact details on where the alleged incidents occurred.

“The report is inconsistent with reports by among others the International Labour Organisation. There is also no confirmation that the sample group are indeed farm workers,” she said.

She also said that AgriSA was aware of Women on Farm’s efforts to “obtain international funding”.

The report

The report was launched on 31 August at an event held at Community House, Salt River, attended by over 200 women farm workers from across the Western Cape. Representatives from the SA Human Rights Commission and the departments of labour and agriculture also attended.

The workers marched to the provincial legislature and to the Department of Labour, calling for improved working conditions.

During the presentation, Colette Solomon, director of Women on Farms Project, said, “The report shows that these things don’t just affect one or two farms. We had a strike in 2012/13 over our working conditions, but for many of us the situation is still the same.”

Lack of sanitation

Nearly 63% of the farm workers surveyed said they had no toilets in the vineyards where they worked all day. This percentage increases to 84% for those employed on farms producing for the domestic market.

Of those who had no toilets, 47% said they used a nearby bush, 40% used a secluded part of the vineyard, 10% waited until they got home and about 2% said they used a toilet in walking distance from the vineyard.

“Women told us that when they have their period, it becomes a concern over what to do with their sanitary pads. Some wait the whole day to change or go find a place to go bury it. They said peeing in the vineyard with men working nearby was also an issue,” said Solomon.

At the Salt River event, a farm worker who only identified herself as Grizelda from Stellenbosch shouted, “This is the truth.” She said, “The toilets are only brought onto the farms when the fair trade inspectors visit and then it’s taken away.”

Contracts not received

The survey found that many workers said they had signed contracts but 70% said they did not get a copy of the contract.

One in three workers interviewed were unaware of the current minimum wage. The average wages were close to the legislated daily and weekly rates of R128.26 and R641.32 respectively. Last year, the minimum wage was R2,778 per month.

Another concern raised was that some workers, particularly seasonal workers, did not contribute to Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). “This has serious implications during the off-season when women are unable to claim when they really need it,” Solomon said.

Labour inspectors absent

Workers at the event expressed anger towards the Department of Labour and its inspectors. According to the report, 69% of workers stated that their farms have either never been inspected or they were not aware of an inspection.

Of the 31% who were aware of visits by an inspector, almost half said inspections occurred as little as once a year. A few workers said inspections were done regularly.

“The inspectors just visit the homes that look neat and tidy,” said farm worker Sana Hendricks from Stellenbosch. “The farmer doesn’t take them to the homes with broken windows and roofs. It’s just not fair.”

Sick notes ignored

Many of the workers said they were allowed to book off work to visit the clinic, but almost half of the workers said they were not paid for the days missed despite producing doctors’ certificates.

“This is at a great cost to their health, and the health of their children because women are generally the primary caregivers. Many don’t book off work because they fear losing their day’s wage,” said Solomon.

Exposure to pesticides

The report stated that 51% of the women surveyed came into contact with pesticides less than an hour after they were applied.

“Workers have reported experiencing a number of skin and [respiratory] irritations after coming into contact with pesticides, but not enough research has been done for us to know what the effects are,” said Solomon.

Unreasonable targets

Another concern raised by the workers was the pressure to meet “unreasonable” targets during the season. Maya Barley from De Doorns said she recently left her job pruning vines because of this issue.

“Our target was 25 vines. One day, the supervisor came to us to say we need to do five more vines for the day if we want to get paid. I asked why and she told me that I think I’m clever. She took me to the boss’s office … I was told that if I can’t work with that team or manager then there isn’t work for me on the farm. So I left,” she said.

Legislation not enforced

After the presentation, Terence September, an official from the Department of Labour from Somerset West, agreed with workers that the system was “flawed”. He urged them to report cases and to provide inspectors with a list of the addresses of the farms they said had not been visited by the department.

Regarding UIF documents he said, “We know that there is a problem. When we do inspections, our first question is whether there is a union representative because we like having them present at all times.”

But Roseline Engelbrecht from the Women on Farms Project said, “The labour inspectors are just like the farmers. We can’t do anything with what you told us now. I’m a farm worker and the problem is that we give them information but nothing is done. We are tired of Labour,” she said.

“Women on Farms Project often gives information to the Department of Labour but we never hear anything back or hear of farmers being fined,” Solomon said.

Toni Xaba, the Chief Director for Rural Development in the Western Cape Department of Agriculture encouraged workers to continue “holding government to account”. She said the department had itself recently completed a census of nearly 3,000 farms across the province.

She encouraged workers to report specific cases to them for further investigation. “We are the only department in the whole country that has a farm worker development directorate. If we get the information, we will deal with it.”

Spokesperson for the Western Cape Department of Agriculture Petro van Rhyn said the minister’s office has approached the Women on Farms Project to discuss the findings and to give them a list of the complaints.

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