Model farm reaps the rewards

2013-01-13 10:00

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‘To really empower workers, they need to have the option of owning their own houses?.?.?.?’

When neurosurgeon Mark Solms took over the ailing Delta fruit farm in 2001, it bothered him that none of his new employees would look him in the eye.

Craig MacGillivray, chief executive of the Solms-Delta operating company, says Solms decided to completely change how the farm was run. This process, and its remarkable success, has made the company a role model in a sector bedevilled by inequality and unhappiness.

This week, farm worker unions admitted they had lost control of wage strikes in the Western Cape, but say farmers have only themselves to blame for renewed violence.

Karel Swarts, spokesperson for the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agriculture and Allied Workers Union, also said they had “no control” over striking farm workers.

Denice Jansen, a Mawubuye Land Rights Forum field worker, said: “We can’t control the situation. People are angry. We are not in control of the strike.”

Jansen also blamed the “dehumanising” living conditions of many workers on farms for the anger.

But amid the violence and unhappiness, there are some farms which have actively tried to tackle their employees’ issues.

MacGillivray recalled during an interview that Solms had called all his employees to a meeting to discuss their concerns 12 years ago.

The answers given by the families resident on the farm were simple: education for themselves and their children, and housing.

The Solms family established the Wijn de Caab Trust in 2005 in order to benefit the farm’s approximately 200 residents and employees.

Solms convinced friend and philanthropist Richard Astor to buy the neighbouring farm and put the two properties on it up as collateral to purchase a third. The land is now owned by the Solms-Delta company, in which the workers have a 33% share through the Wijn de Caab Trust.

The other two-thirds ownership is split between the Astor and Solms families.

Along with the shares and a minimum entry-level wage of R100 per day, Solms-Delta has invested extensively in education, housing and healthcare for its employees.

Tour guide and garden supervisor Johan Orayn has been on the farm since 1981.

He was one of seven resident families who lived in rooms in the building that now houses the Fyndraai restaurant where farm residents have been trained as chefs and waitresses.

Orayn’s family of 10 lived in three rooms, he says, with an outside toilet. He now has a five-room house for himself, his wife and their three children. They have electricity, water, flush toilets, DStv and a garden, standard for all families on the farm.

But to really empower workers, they need to have the option of owning their own house off the farm, says MacGillivray.

Solms-Delta is creating a 200-home “agri-village” on a nearby old forestry site owned by the department of public works.

A vineyard and a cellar are part of the plan, and the idea is that workers will manage these for their own financial benefit.

“We will be joint venture partners in the winemaking side with profits channelled back into the community through the Wijn de Caab Trust,” explains MacGillivray. He admits they are battling red tape, so it will be some time before construction starts.

Education has been another focus. Solms-Delta now has a crèche for 30 children with six qualified teachers – all of whom were originally from the farm.

Other children’s school fees are paid for by the Solms-Delta operating company. Bursaries are available for children who want to go study at tertiary level.

Employees of Solms-Delta’s were not among those striking late last year or this week.

Employee Adam Pieterson said people on other farms often asked whether there were positions at Solms-Delta, which has a permanent staff of 119

and 30 sub-contracted vineyard workers at any time.

Pieterson said his life on the farm had improved significantly over the last decade, and emphasised that the previous owner also treated his employees well but had struggled to make money in a depressed fruit market.

MacGillivray admits Solms-Delta is an exception. Not all farmers have the capital to introduce the measures it has.

But, he says, most farmers in the area worked as hard as they could to improve their workers’ lives. The biggest challenge, he adds, is helping workers in a way that means they do not become more reliant on the farm and limit their own and their children’s choices beyond the vineyards.

– West Cape News

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