Multiple perspectives on changing agricultural employment patterns in the Hex and Breede River Valleys

Claude Schroeder Director of the Department of Rural and Social Development in the Cape Winelands District Municipality opened the round table dialogue. This is part of an ongoing initiative by CWDM to research key trends impacting on the rural economy and their implications for employment, security of tenure, service delivery and social conflict.

Phuhlisani  has been working in the Cape Winelands for the past three years as part of a programme focusing on farm workers. This has included:

  • a civil rights education programme dealing with the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA), the Sectoral Determination and dismissals (2009 - 2012)
  • a survey of fifty farms to analyse the factors contributing to movement on and off farms (2010)
  • an analysis of the data on ESTA evictions which go through the courts (2010)
  • the impact of displacement on vulnerable farm worker families who end up in small towns (2010)
  • a review of  key trends impacting on the agricultural economy (2010)
  • research into the downturn in the wine sector which provided the background for the first roundtable table session in November (2011)
  • the organisation of District farm worker forums (2011)
  • a series of farm worker open days and the recent Op die Plasie event (2011)which bring together farm workers from all over the District
  • research into changing agricultural employment patterns in the Hex and Breede River valleys (2012) to prepare for the second round table forum.

Rick de Satge of Phuhlisani explained that the round table dialogues serve to share information from research and enable municipal councillors and officials, government departments, farm workers, unions, employers, organised agriculture and NGOs to engage in dialogue in order to better understand complex problems and learn what shapes the perspectives of different social actors. He introduced basic rules for effective dialogue (Access the Prezi by clicking on the link below) and outlined the research objectives before handing over to Jan Theron, the co-ordinator of the Labour and Enterprise Policy Unit (LEP) based in the Law Faculty at UCT to discuss the findings for the key research questions.

  • How have employment patterns changed in the valley?

Theron noted that whereas formerly the seasonal workers utilised by the farmer were primarily women resident on the farm in question, increasingly seasonal labour was now being drawn from the mushrooming informal settlements in and around De Doorns.

At the same time there had been a consolidation of ownership in the Hex River valley  confirmed by statistical data produced by the table grape industry association (SATI, 2010), which show that the number of producers fell by about a third between 2008 and 2010 alone, while there was not much variation in the number of workers employed, both permanently and on a seasonal basis.  

  •  What accounts for the increasing externalisation of farm labour and what form does this take?

Theron noted that externalisation of labour - a process where employers restructure their labour forces to cut back on the number of permanent employers in favour of outsourced providers of services and labour was a phenomenon which was increasingly the norm across the industry and globally as well. He distinguished between contractors who had long provided specialist services like pruning and trellis construction and labour brokers who provide casual workers to meet high season demand.

  • What is driving the increasing numbers of  migrants from other countries working in the agricultural sector?

Migrants from Lesotho had long worked in the agricultural sector in the valley. Migrants from Zimbabwe were a more recent phenomenon. Available evidence seemed to suggest that the influx of migrants was closely linked to political instability and economic hardship in Zimbabwe in 2008/9 but this influx had since peaked. Overall there was a need for further research into the push and pull factors influencing  migration and the need to note that there was internal migration driving movements of workers within and between districts and between provinces.

Competition between labour brokers had been a signifcant factor in the lead up to the social conflict in De Doorns. In the 2008 and 2009 season many farmers utilized labour brokers not only to provide them with the complement of seasonal workers they required, but also to transport them. Following the conflict it seems farmers are now utilizing their own supervisors or foremen to recruit seasonal workers, and providing their own transport to get them to the farm and back to their homes. Instead of being remunerated by a labour broker, these workers are now remunerated by the farmer.  This trend needs to be further researched.

  • What do we know about living and working conditions and payment levels on farms in the valley for permanent workers, local seasonal workers and migrants from Lesotho and Zimbabwe?

Three studies undertaken in 2009 suggest there is general compliance with the minimum wages prescribed by the sectoral determination. There was no differentiation between what permanent or seasonal workers were earning for equivalent work, including foreign migrants working on a seasonal basis. All studies confirm that the allegations made at the time of the 2008/2009 social conflict, that farmers employ Zimbabweans because they can pay them less, was without foundation. There is some evidence that Zimbabwean workers who are generally well educated and skilled were actually being paid more than local workers.

  • What has been at the root of recent social conflict in the valley?

Theron highlighted that the Integrated Development Plan of the CWDM indicates that De Doorns has one of the highest unemployment rates in the district (Robb, 2009). Compounding this problem is the housing backlog, and the cramped conditions under which residents of the informal settlements live. It has been reported that there are beneficiaries of housing schemes that are renting out their properties to Zimbabwean migrants to generate income for themselves.  Given high unemployment levels, it is inevitable that at the beginning of the season there will be competition for jobs, and a degree of social tension.

The other factor that may have contributed toward making Zimbabweans the focus of local anger was the perceived favouritism toward them by the farmers. Apart from the attitudes amongst farmers that might have prevailed, it appears that farmers spearheaded negotiations with the Department of Home Affairs that led it to establish a satellite office in De Doorns. It is also alleged this was done without consultation with the local community or Local Government, and that it precipitated a surge of applications by Zimbabwean migrants (Misago, 2009; Robb, 2009).

  • How are these trends likely to impact on social relations in future?

Theron noted that if the utilisation of labour brokers has diminished or ceased and the number of foreign migrants has dropped, it is unlikely the particular constellation of circumstances that gave rise to the 2009 conflict will recur. However the root causes of the conflict have obviously not disappeared and still require careful monitoring. Zimbabwean workers continue report hostility diplayed towards them on farms.

  • What can be done to minimise the risk of social conflict?

The research suggests that there is no substitute for autonomous organisation to voice the interests of workers - permanent, seasonal and migrant and related fora for dialogue and negotiation.  Theron argued that while farmers complain they are unfairly targeted by politicians,  media, and partisan researchers one of the best ways of deflecting this kind of criticism would be if they were to embrace the need to deal with credible and autonomous organizations. He proposed that the Hex River Valley could be an ideal pilot site to test ways to build autonomous worker organisations and create well structured and managed fora for dialogue in order to address social and labour issues.

The full paper can be downloaded from the link below.

A wideranging discussion followed which was moderated by Boyce Williams and Claud Woodman. The various inputs by worker organisations and government departments highlighted how changing employment patterns on farms which reflected and responded to broader processes of restructuring of labour both locally and internationally had major social costs. These had been exacerbated by instability and economic problems in Zimbabwe. The Departments of Education and Health spoke about the challenges they faced as a result of changing settlement demographics which placed services under pressure. Workers and De Doorns residents spoke about how the situation had affected them personally and as a community. They highlighted the problems of organising on farms and the lack of spaces for dialogue. The failure to refurbish the sports grounds which had housed the safety camp was an ongoing cause for concern.

Farmers and employers present commended the impartiality of the research and the process of dialogue which had been put in place. A farmer spoke about the need to build relationships between employers and workers and their organisations. He observed that this would require a carefully managed and moderated process to  build trust and enable difficult questions to be addressed similar to that which had been put in place for the dialoge sessions. A CCMA Commissioner spoke about the role that the CCMA could play to prevent and manage disputes. A participant from PASSOP noted that political intervention was required to address social conflict and unite people.

Connections were made between participants which if followed up and given institutional support by the Cape Winelands could lay the foundations for more structured research led dialogue and joint problem solving. This would help the CWDM to anticipate and manage change and involve citizens in the co-construction of solutions to pressing social issues.


An official from the Department of Education provides his perspective at the dialogue
An official from the Department of Education provides his perspective at the dialogue

Posted: 5/10/2012 (11:03:49 AM)

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