De Doorns farmworkers still unhappy about pay, rights

2016-07-20 22:51
Pravin Gordhan road in Stofberg, De Doorns East (Jenni Evans, News24)

De Doorns East – Three-and-a-half years after a landmark farmworkers' strike, the workers of De Doorns East are still fighting for better wages and living conditions.

A high level delegation, which included the Minister of Labour Mildred Oliphant, Minister of Agriculture Senzeni Zokwana and representatives of the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration, the Compensation and Unemployment Insurance funds, descended on the rapidly growing community on Wednesday for a roadshow.

Unfazed by the politicians' powerful positions, speaker after speaker took the roving mic and demanded answers for the struggling community.

"My question to the officials," said one woman, dragging out the word "officials" with just a hint of sarcasm, "is, when is the government going to give us houses so that farmers can't just remove us?"

In full swing, she continued: "Listen, Department of Labour, I hear there are a few millions lying around there at Labour. So you can come and put a mobile labour office here. You have got the money right?"

News that a Department of Labour office for the area has been approved received a lukewarm response when they heard that the department was still looking for office space.

Another worker said: "We can't even afford to buy the food that we produce!"

Free take-away meal

In headscarves, beanies and thick track suit tops to keep the icy Boland wind at bay, residents old and young listened as Oliphant and Zokwana explained the services and programmes that were available to them and sympathised with their plight.

Although both ministers are on an African National Congress ticket, there was no election talk and only a few ANC T-shirts were seen dotting the venue. Those present were also given a free take-away meal. The VIPs were served from bain-maries in a separate dining tent where the delegation met with the food and fruit producer representatives afterwards.

People outside took advantage of the mobile services on offer, such as registering as a work seeker, learning how to claim from the UIF and how to claim compensation if injured at work.

Filling in "available for work forms" at the De Doorns East workshop (Jenni Evans, News24)

Many scooped up the scores of leaflets explained various labour and employment-related issues. Department representatives also explained the various training courses available to the workers and how to go about enrolling for them.

A popular leaflet explained the minimum wage for farmworkers for the 2016/17 period.

Most of the around 10 000 residents of the town rely on seasonal work for survival, with a maximum of eight months of low pay a year for many. Workers are increasingly living off-farm and the once sleepy town has expanded rapidly with hastily erected shacks next to the highway to accommodate work-seekers from as far afield as the Eastern Cape.

Unlike other regions where Afrikaans is the dominant language, in De Doorns Xhosa is widely spoken in the town, alongside Afrikaans.

R128.26 for a day's work

These were the same farmworkers who decided in 2012 that enough was enough and went on a massive wage strike, blocking the N1 that passes through the town.

To the shock of people not familiar with their conditions, it was revealed that their minimum wage was R69 a day, and many said they were not even getting that much. An urgent review of their pay was conducted and it was increased by around 52% to the current R128.26 a day.

The current minimum weekly pay is R641, hourly R14.25 and monthly R2 778.83, according to the pamphlet.

But workers say it is still too little, leaving nothing left to save or to rent their own farmland for their own farming enterprises. And they complained about deductions for seeing a doctor and for uniforms.

They demanded to know why Oliphant could not just give them the R150 a day that they had wanted during the strike.

Oliphant explained the laborious process of consultation that goes into determining a minimum wage, but her audience tuned out, fidgeting impatiently, talking among themselves, checking on the children playing at their feet.

Less than 1% of farmland owned by black farmers

They also wanted to know why they had to travel to Laingsburg or Worcester when they had labour or compensation issues, and those who had work, demanded some form of medical scheme and pension.

"Because when we are finished working, there is nothing that we get from that farm," said one farmworker.

Zokwana said that less than 1% of the farmland in the Western Cape is owned by black farmers.

"The people who were here when [Jan] Van Riebeeck arrived, are not the white people, it was us," he said.

"You can't be a minority in the Western Cape man, you are the owner of this land."

Zokwana, a former president of the Congress of SA Trade Unions, urged workers in the town to join a union so that their demands could be addressed.

As the workshop wound up, people in the town started making their way home after queuing for a meal of a piece of chicken, a bun and a portion of pink noodle salad.

'Shameful' salaries

Those who do not live on farms live mostly in a suburb called Stofberg, which is divided between neat new government-funded housing for low income earners, where Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has a street named after him, and rows of shacks that have sprung up next to the highway.

To the outsider it appears to be a town that has grown too quickly, with no big business or industry to provide work opportunities.

Two women who work in a nearby hospice were pleased that they had had a chance to raise their problem with the region's ANC mayoral candidate Pat Marran.

The home-based carers said they earned R58 a day for what is supposed to be morning work but takes the whole day.

Not wanting to be named, one said they have to walk to their patients and it takes the whole day to see everybody.

They earn R1 748 a month and while they are pleased to have the work, they believe what they are paid is "shameful", given the services they provide. This includes nutritional advice, bandage changing, and taking care of cancer and HIV/Aids patients.

"And we had to have a matric to be able to apply," she said scornfully.

Asked who they were going to vote for in the August 3 municipal elections, one said: "I just don’t know."

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