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'Improve farmworkers lives'

Aug 23, 2011 | Sowetan LIVE |   3 comments

'Housing that is 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'

Human Rights Watch wants working conditions improved on South Africa's renowned wine and fruit farms in the Western Cape.

A 96-page report released today documents conditions that include on-site housing that is 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.

The worst case was one farmworker who showed Human Rights Watch a former pig stall without electricity and water where he has lived with his wife and children for 10 years. “It makes me very unhappy,” his wife said, “because I can’t guarantee the safety of my children and can’t provide for my children.”

NEED TO ENFORCE THE LAW

“The wealth and well-being these workers produce shouldn’t be rooted in human misery,” Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “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 is based on more than 260 interviews with farmworkers, farm owners, civil society members, industry representatives, government officials, lawyers, union officials, and academic experts.

South Africa has laws guaranteeing wages, benefits, and safe working and housing conditions for workers and other farm dwellers. But the law affords workers much greater labour and housing protections than they receive because the government largely has failed to monitor conditions and enforce the laws, Human Rights Watch said.

PESTICIDES

Occupational health and safety conditions on many farms endanger workers, Human Rights Watch said.

The majority of the current and former farmworkers interviewed about these conditions said they had been exposed to pesticides without adequate safety equipment. In addition, many employers jeopardize workers’ health by not providing them with access to drinking water, hand washing facilities, or toilets, even though these are required by labour regulations.

"When farmworkers are ill or injured, as is fairly common in this line of dangerous work, they are almost always refused the paid sick leave required by law unless they provide a medical certificate.

“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.

NO WORK, NO HOME

Many farmworkers live on farms as part of their employment arrangement; they are joined by family members and former workers, including those who can no longer work because they are too old or injured.

Human Rights Watch said these farm dwellers’ land tenure rights are protected under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act, enacted in 1997. The government does not keep statistics on numbers of evictions, but people interviewed described a steady pace of evictions, particularly when labourers are no longer able to work. Evicted workers who spoke with Human Rights Watch had not been given suitable alternative housing or adequate compensation to find new housing.

Although it is a crime for owners to evict occupiers from land without following required procedures, the authorities rarely initiate criminal proceedings. And even when farmers follow legal procedures, evicted farm dwellers often have no place to go.

Municipal governments are generally unprepared to assist them, the report found.

LIMITED INSPECTORS

Farmworkers are some of the most poorly organized workers in the country, with estimates of union “density” – the percentage of workers represented by trade unions – in the Western Cape agricultural sector as low as 3 percent, compared with 30 percent among those with formal employment in the country as a whole. Human Rights Watch found that some farmers try to prevent workers from forming unions, though the right to organize is protected under South Africa’s constitution and international law.

At the time Human Rights Watch conducted its research, in March 2011, the Western Cape had 107 labour inspectors, responsible for inspecting over 6,000 farms and all other workplaces in the province.

NOT ALL BAD

Conditions on farms vary, and not all farmworkers with whom Human Rights Watch spoke had encountered rights abuses.

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 legally 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.

'ETHICAL TRADE'

South African fruit and wine is sold domestically and exported overseas. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands are the top destinations for Western Cape fruit, and the UK and Germany are the biggest importers of South African wine. Canada, the United States, and other European nations are also important markets for South African wine.

Industry bodies, farmers’ associations, and ethical trade initiatives should ensure that workers’ rights are respected, Human Rights Watch said. They should work with the South African government to guarantee that the workers who help produce fruit and wine receive adequate housing, benefits, and health protections.

“The answer is not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers,” Bekele said. “But we are asking retailers to press their suppliers to ensure that there are decent conditions on the farms that produce the products they buy and sell to their customers.”

AGRI SA TAKES ISSUE WITH REPORT:

Faming organisation Agri SA issued a statement saying it rejected the Human Rights Watch report "as being one-sided, malicious, unfair and highly irresponsible".

"Agri SA questions the research methodology and therefore the credibility of the relevant findings," said Johannes Möller, president of Agri SA. 

He said it should be noted that all deciduous fruit export farms, which were the focus of the Human Rights Watch investigation, are third party accredited for GlobalGap (good agricultural practices) and Ethical Trade certified as required by the international retail trade. 

"It is therefore highly unlikely that the allegations as contained in the report could be a true reflection of prevailing circumstances on farms in the Western Cape."

'AGRI SA WILL NOT PROTECT ABUSIVE FARMERS'

Furthermore, he said, Agri SA and its affiliates subscribe to national legislation and international norms on labour standards and require from its farmer members to do so as well. 

"Where real problems does  exist, Agri SA and its affiliates are committed to assist in finding solutions. 

"Agri SA will also not protect any farmer who is guilty of human rights abuses or serious breaches of the law and demands that due legal process should be followed."

Agri SA questioned the adequacy and composition of the research sample of 260 people.  Of these, 85 were apparently farm workers, 32 former farm workers and 16 were farm dwellers. "How can such a small, and probably carefully selected sample ever be used to describe the situation of 121,000 farm workers," Möller queried.

He noted that only 14 farm owners or representatives of farm owners were interviewed, representing  less than 0.3 percent of the approximately 5,000 producers of the Western Cape.

"It is also apparent that statements made by farm workers, former farm workers and farm dwellers were not duly verified... This places a question mark over the objectivity of the report and its condemning findings."

ILO ASKED TO HELP WITH INDEPENDENT RESEARCH

Möller concluded: "It is a potential dangerous situation for agriculture if perceptions are created by the outcomes of impaired research on which policy decisions could be based.

"Agri SA would therefore welcome objective and authoritative research into the labour conditions on farms as well as into the drivers of certain trends.  For this reason Agri SA is consulting with the International Labour Organisation as independent body to facilitate such research."

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