MPs debate improved oversight of farm workers' rights

Farm workers' security of tenure and employment rights were debated by MPs this week.
Farm workers' security of tenure and employment rights were debated by MPs this week.
Image: Johnny Onverwacht

The EFF has urged parliament to intervene to improve the living conditions of farm workers in the country.

The third biggest party made the plea during a debate on the condition of farm workers in the National Assembly on Thursday. The EFF proposed the establishment of an ad hoc committee to look into the living conditions faced by farm workers who at times, the party claims, are only remunerated with alcohol.

The red berets also want the committee to look into the eviction of farm workers by farm owners.

Some farm workers, according to the motion by EFF MP Sam Matiase, are forcefully evicted from their land and are “enslaved” by their employers.

“This is a historical problem. Because of our history, the relationship between farm owners and farm workers has always been mediated by violence - from the violence of forceful dispossession of the land, to the slave-like work conditions on farms; from the complete disregard of the human rights of the young and the old, to the forceful and illegal evictions of people who have stayed on these farms for generations,” Matiase said.

He said that though farm workers are directly involved in the production of food, they sometimes go for days without eating.

“It is also common practice among farmers to pay workers with wine, instead of money, therefore creating alcohol dependence that is destroying any prospects of a better future for farm workers and their families,” Matiase said.

He said most farm workers do not get paid annual and sick leave, work long hours and are hardly remunerated for overtime, while less than 10% are entitled to maternity leave and just more than 20% have pension and retirement benefits.

The EFF called for the ad hoc committee to look into this and make recommendations to amend current legislation to protect farm workers and farm dwellers.

The party proposes that the ad hoc committee, consisting of 11 members - six from the ANC, two from the DA, one EFF representative and two from other parties - hold public hearings with all interested and affected stakeholders.

The ANC welcomed the debate and said it shared the concerns about the struggles of farm workers, especially in the Western Cape.

“In confronting these challenges faced by our farm workers and their families, our actions must be guided by the wisdom and maturity without compromising the imperative of seeking land justice, security of tenure, stopping farm evictions, addressing the appalling living conditions of farm workers and the inhumane and ill-treatment of farm workers,” ANC MP Mandla Mandela said.

Farm workers are at the mercy of farm owners and are frequently evicted from the land where they worked for decades.
Mandla Mandela

He said security of tenure was probably the harshest thing faced by farm workers, which put them at the mercy of farm owners who can evict them at any point.

“Farm workers are at the mercy of farm owners and are frequently evicted from the land where they worked for decades. This inhumane practice has led to the mushrooming of informal settlements along the N1 national road in the Western Cape province.”

Mandela said he hoped the EFF was not using this to score political points as it involved the lives of vulnerable people.

Though Mandela supported the EFF motion to debate the living conditions of the farm workers, he was, however, against the establishment of the ad hoc committee as proposed by the EFF, saying it was ill-conceived.

“It detracts from the priorities at hand and would be a duplication of functions of oversight that the portfolio is tasked with. We do not support this draft resolution to establish such an ad hoc committee,” Mandela said.

The DA supported the motion but said the EFF’s resolution in its current form was a disservice to farm workers and did more harm than good as it was riddled with sweeping statements, blanket accusations and aimed at causing divisions and animosity.

DA MP Annelie Lotriet said they would propose an amendment to the resolution when it is tabled.

She said it was evident that the focus of this was primarily on one province, the Western Cape, which is governed by the DA. “Therefore the DA would, if the draft resolution is tabled before the house, submit an amendment resolution indicating that the house notes that the agricultural sector in this country is an important contributor to the economy and food security,” Lotriet said.

The future of the country’s economy was dependent on the wellbeing of everyone involved in the sector, Lotriet said, adding they would support the establishment of an ad hoc committee as proposed by the EFF.

This would be “to conduct a comprehensive review of the conditions of farm workers across the country, including all the work that has been done within and by the agricultural organisations in the country. Make an assessment of legislation affecting farm workers and then make recommendations for any amendments should it be necessary,” she said.

Freedom Front Plus MP Tamarin Breedt said the motion by the EFF was nothing but “cheap politicking by a party that has become out of touch with reality and its own constituents”.

The IFP said the party believed there were laws in place to protect farm workers and that those tasked with enforcing such laws should be held accountable instead of “reinventing the wheel” by establishing a committee.

“We cannot keep talking about investigating matters and do little to enforce protection,” said IFP MP Xolani Ngwezi.

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