‘Action needed’ on abuse of farm workers

2011-08-23 10:53

Urgent action is required to improve the lives of farm workers in the Western Cape, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today.

Workers in the province who helped produce South Africa’s renowned wines and fruit were denied adequate housing, proper safety equipment, and basic labour rights, HRW said in a report released today.

Government, along with the industries employing these labourers, should take immediate steps to improve their working and housing conditions, it said.

The 96-page report – Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries – documented conditions that included on-site housing unfit for living, exposure to pesticides without proper safety equipment, lack of access to toilets or drinking water while working, and efforts to block workers from forming unions.

“While the Western Cape’s fruit and wine industries contribute billions of rand to the country’s economy, support tourism, and are enjoyed by consumers around the world, their farmworkers earn among the lowest wages in South Africa.”

The report also described insecure tenure rights and threats of eviction for long-time residents on farms.

“The wealth and wellbeing these workers produce shouldn’t be rooted in human misery,” HRW Africa director Daniel Bekele said.

“The government, and the industries and farmers themselves, need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms.”

The report was based on more than 260 interviews with farmworkers, farm owners, civil society members, industry representatives, government officials, lawyers, union officials, and academic experts.

The law afforded workers much greater labour and housing protections than they received because government had largely failed to monitor conditions and enforce the laws, the report said.

Housing for some workers was uninhabitable.

One farmworker showed HRW the former pig stall without electricity, water, or protection from the elements, where he had lived with his wife and children for 10 years.

Many farmworkers lived on farms as part of their employment arrangement.

They were joined by family members and former workers, including those who could no longer work because they were too old or injured.

These farm dwellers’ land tenure rights were protected under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act, but by civil society estimates more than 930 000 people were evicted from farms between 1994 and 2004.

Government did not keep statistics on numbers of evictions, but people interviewed described a steady pace of evictions, particularly when labourers were no longer able to work.

Evicted workers who spoke with HRW had not been given suitable alternative housing or adequate compensation to find new housing.

Even when farmers followed legal procedures, evicted farm dwellers often had no place to go. Municipal governments were generally unprepared to assist them, and some ended up homeless.

Most current and former farmworkers interviewed said they had been exposed to pesticides without adequate safety equipment.

“Given what we know about the effects of pesticide use, it is unconscionable that some of these workers are not provided appropriate safety equipment, even after they ask for it,” Bekele said.

HRW found that some farmers tried to prevent workers from forming unions, though the right to organise was protected under the Constitution and international law.

Steps taken by government and industry to improve conditions had not been sufficient to ensure that overall conditions on farms met the basic standards required by law.

At the time the research was conducted – March this year – Western Cape had 107 labour inspectors responsible for inspecting over 6 000 farms and all other workplaces in the province.

Moreover, an agreement between the labour department, AgriSA, and other parties requiring labour inspectors to give farmers notice of inspections undermined the inspectors’ capacity to identify violations.

However, conditions on farms varied and not all farmworkers spoken to had encountered rights abuses.

The report reads: “In a small number of cases, farmworkers and farm owners described full compliance with the law as well as a variety of positive practices by employers that went beyond the legal requirements.

“Some farmers give workers land to grow their own crops, pay the full cost of medical visits, provide free food to workers in the winter, or have set up trusts that benefit farmworkers. Farmers who provided these benefits to farmworkers noted that these efforts can be profitable.”

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