16 November 2012

The farming wars

Violence has erupted in the wage battle between farm labourers and farmers. This is our real frontline in SA. Who is to blame for this war, asks Susan Erasmus.

Violence has erupted in the wage battle between farm labourers and farmers. This is our real frontline in SA. Who is to blame for this war, asks Susan Erasmus.

This battle is not about race, about local politics, or even particularly South African: it is about a painful transition from a patriarchal, almost mediaeval serfdom to a modern, more open labour market, in which historical loyalties and responsibilities fly out the window (for better or for worse), and supply and demand become the determining factor in wage negotiations. That is, if this battle is really about wages, and the workers are not just being used as political pawns by other forces to create pre-election jitters.

The ANC has essentially been caught with its pants down – the farmers in the affected areas do pay the minimum wage. Now the ANC is saying it should be increased unilaterally. If the minimum wage is deemed not to be a living wage by workers, something is very wrong somewhere. Increasing this amount willy-nilly is tantamount to sticking a plaster over a cancerous skin growth and assuming the problem has been dealt with.

But what if farmers, like many of the mines, simply cannot afford to do this? It boils down to having to choose between paying better wages and closing down the whole operation. Or going for large-scale mechanisation, putting thousands of people out of jobs.

Labour in the modern world

In the modern working world, people compete with one another for jobs. The salaries they earn depend on their skills level, their experience, their education, their chosen profession, the scarcity of what they have to offer and the location in which they are prepared to work. If workers can easily be replaced, it reduces their bargaining power.

Few modern businesses provide housing, food, transport, which many farmers still do.  In fact, an applicant's personal situation is usually not even considered when a salary scale is determined. This is greatly decided by market forces. Harsh, but true.

This does not mean that all companies (or farmers) pay a fair wage – they are businesses, and have shareholders breathing down their necks. They pay what they can get away with. If their salaries are too high, the bottom line suffers. If they are too low, they lose all their good workers and get left with the dead wood. It's a thin line on which to walk.

But back to the farms, which like any other business, are a microcosm of the society within which they function. And in our society the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is massive. Nowhere is it more apparent than on farms.

Maybe both farmers and farm labourers are in some way victims of a vicious past and are now being vilified as slave owners on the one hand, and ungrateful thugs on the other hand. Scapegoats are such handy things: we apportion blame and walk away from the issue without ever taking a closer look at possible solutions.

There are always two sides to every story – and nowhere is this more true than when looking at the current farm labourers' wage dispute and protests.

The labourer

  • No one can dispute that R69 per day is not a living wage. That comes to R345 per week and less than R1600 per month. You couldn't live on that. You can't feed a family on that.
  •  Living conditions are often poor, and life on isolated (and sometimes not such isolated) farms can be hard.
  •  Labourers' cottages often lack basic commodities such as water and electricity. There are few opportunities for advancement (for children and adults), often alcohol abuse is rife in the communities, and physical abuse of labourers does happen. Socio-economic woes abound, especially in areas where the (now illegal) dop system is still practised.
  • The labourer expects a certain loyalty from the farmer, especially if their history goes back generations.
  • There is a massive difference between the lifestyle of the farmer and the labourer. The labourer also often has no claim on the land, even if his family has lived there for generations. He can be evicted.
  • Once you're stuck in this cycle, there doesn't seem to be a way out: where do you go?


The farmer

  • This person is ultimately responsible for making and keeping this business viable. This is extremely stressful, as market fluctuations (and the high cost of machinery/farming equipment) can easily turn a farming venture into a losing concern, in which case everyone loses their jobs, farmer included.
  • A huge amount of money has to be spent on security measures to prevent farm attacks. Being on the alert constantly is also very stressful.
  • He (or she) provides staff housing, food, transport into town, some medical services and first aid, arbitration in disputes – a far greater level of social responsibility is often assumed than in other working situations.
  • Cash in the pocket is low for the labourers– but that is market-related as skills and educational levels are often low, many family members (who do not work on the farm) are accommodated on the farm, and the workers could be replaced relatively easily in our poor economy.
  • Socio-economic ills, such as alcohol abuse also affect productivity levels.
  • South African farming is labour-intensive, and labour costs are high, even if individual salaries are low.

On a personal note: a few years ago, while visiting a relative, I took a wrong turn outside the town of Moorreesburg, which is only 100km from Cape Town. I came across a settlement of farm labourers, who lived in the most unbelievable squalor. Filth everywhere, swarms of snotty kids, a couple of people passed out, dogs and farm animals snuffling through the garbage. I was shocked, and I am no stranger to squalor.

The other side of a story from the same region. Friends of mine farm 30 km away in Malmesbury. They have endless problems with stock thefts, security issues, labour problems, and two weeks ago a neighbor up the road was murdered.

My point? It is easy to simplify this very real rural battle: farmers can be portrayed as greedy and heartless, labourers as the victims of a system akin to serfdom. Or farmers can be portrayed as the country's food producers, who are under fire, because of race issues. Or labourers as uneducated, unreliable, good-for-nothing parasites.

As with all things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. You find both good and bad farmers and labourers.

At the heart of all this lie the central issues of viable business principles, a living wage, a ghastly political history and an uncertain future under a government whose understanding of farming, and the role it plays in food production and the economy seems at best limited.

SA's farms are its Achilles heel, possibly its Armageddon. A solution has to be found, if we are to know where our next meal is coming from.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, November 2012)


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