“Our march to freedom is irreversible” said Nelson Mandela shortly after his release. These words aptly summarise South Africa’s dedication to the fight for freedom. Undoubtedly in the last two decades the country has taken huge steps forward in the struggle to overcome the consequences of the apartheid regime.
In spite of its tremendous efforts and successes the country still has a long way to go to ensure and enforce the individual’s rights.
For a long time South African legislation has recognized that an individual employee and an individual employer do not have equal bargaining power.
As a result, successive governments have developed what is now seen as some of the most advanced and stringent labour legislations. However, the success of its enforcement varies from sector to sector.
The agricultural sector is one of the sectors in which the enforcement of labour laws still demands improvement. Agricultural workers are often poorly organised. Very few collective agreements exist in the sector, and where they do, enforcement of the legislation, is at best, problematic. According to Statistics South Africa some 650,000 people were employed in the agricultural sector in 2010. However, varying estimates indicate that only between two to eight per cent of the production sites are unionised.
This low level of unionisation is often the result of discouraging practices by employers. Farm owners often deny union organisers access to their farms, threaten them and workers who seek their assistance. Or they create workers’ committees in order to thwart genuine union formation. According to our research, workers in the Western Cape also reported subtle forms of victimisation as a result of joining trade unions. These included the loss of long-standing privileges such as free transportation to doctors, a 50 per cent subsidy for doctors’ fees and the right to keep their own live-stock, or keeping a garden for own use.
In one case, according to a research conducted by CONSAWU in the Western Cape, a woman whose husband introduced the union on the farm was no longer paid by her employer to run a daytime crèche for workers’ children.
In addition, union organisers often find it difficult to make arrangements with workers who are located in remote areas and are also poorly paid. Union formation is inhibited by their long working hours and seasonal availability.
This results in the employment legislation in the agricultural sector bypassing many fruit workers because of the informal and seasonal character of their employment.
On the other hand, the fact that seasonal workers are working in a sector linked to the global economy provides another possibility for improving employment conditions. The existence of codes of conduct and sustainability initiatives in the Private sector creates an avenue whereby the worker’s rights and social benefits can be safeguarded.
These codes often incorporate International Labour Organisation (ILO) core conventions on decent work like – freedom of association and collective bargaining, equal remuneration, no discrimination, no forced or child labour – and other stipulations regarding a living wage, safe and hygienic working conditions, regular employment and working hours.
These initiatives by the companies provide a useful starting point to ensure labour rights for farm workers.
However, implementing the codes alone is not enough. Their credibility will rest on comprehensive monitoring and verification programmes and the involvement of organised labour to represent the concerns of workers. For these workers the march for freedom has only just begun.< Back