Straight talk: a top farm worker on labour issues

Jerome Thomas, Western Cape Farm Worker of the Year, started his career as a general labourer on Kanonkop Estate 15 years ago. He now works as a supervisor and serves on the farm’s management committee. He spoke to Denene Erasmus about his journey to the top.

Straight talk: a top farm worker on labour issues
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The term ‘farm worker’ conjurs up an image of a poorly educated person working long, hard hours in the sun and earning low wages. It therefore seems wholly inadequate to describe Jerome Thomas. ‘Farm professional’ would be more appropriate for Jerome, winner of the Western Cape Department of Agriculture’s Farm Worker of the Year award for 2014. Yet Jerome himself will have none of it. He would rather see people’s perception of a farm worker change to include the many highly skilled and success-driven employees on farms.

A passion for farming
Jerome says he was fortunate to grow up with his grandparents on a farm near Stellenbosch, where his grandfather worked as a general labourer. But when his grandparents retired, they had to move to town, and although Jerome spent his early working years doing odd jobs in town, he always dreamt of going back to the farm and marrying, as he says, ‘a farm girl’.

Things worked out well for Jerome. He met a ‘farm girl’, Alicia, who is now his wife and mother of their three children. He also secured a job on Kanonkop Estate where Alicia lived. Jerome started working on Kanonkop as a general labourer at the end of 1999, but because he knew nothing about tending vineyards or wine-making, the first few years proved a steep learning curve.

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“I asked the older, more experienced workers so many questions that they got irritated with me, but I just kept on asking because that’s how you learn,” he recalls.

Jerome seized every training opportunity offered by the farm’s owners. Fifteen years later, his persistence and drive has paid off: he not only works as a supervisor and team leader, but represents workers in management meetings. “The training I received during those first few years on the farm introduced me to new developments in vineyard management. It became apparent to me that many of the older, experienced workers had become stuck in their ways and were reluctant to embrace new, more efficient ways of doing things,” he says.

Farm workers’ committee
Faced with the uphill battle of convincing the older workers to learn new techniques, Jerome and some of the other younger workers established a farm worker committee that included younger and older workers. Farm owners Johann and Paul Krige supported the idea and in 2002 Jerome was appointed chairperson of the committee, a role that he soon started using to implement fresh ideas about tending vineyards.His influence did not stop there, however.

Better conditions for workers
Jerome was determined to help change the socio-economic conditions of farm workers. “We implemented programmes that paid attention to the spiritual well-being of all the workers. Witnessing the positive influence this had on our farm worker community, the farm owners supported these efforts wholeheartedly,” he recalls.

Quality rather than quantity
According to Jerome, quality drives all aspects of the work on Kanonkop. The vineyards, which cover 100ha, produce only red grape varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinotage and Petit Verdot. With the estate focusing on quality rather than quantity, yield is strictly managed and the aim is to harvest approximately 10t/ ha, but the exact figure depends on the variety.

“Last year, we pressed about 1 400t of grapes in the cellar,” he says. “Some of the grapes are bought in from other farms, but we only buy in grapes that meet our quality standards.”

Jerome says that correct pruning is one of the most critical vineyard management
interventions to ensure the quality of grapes.


It is Jerome’s responsibility to take samples from the vineyards to determine when to harvest. He also leads the team responsible for punching down the grapes during the wine-making process. “‘Punching down the cap’ is the process whereby the grape skins that rise to the top of the tank during the fermentation of red wine are punched back down to mix with the grape juice, so that all the colour and flavour can be extracted from the skins,” he explains.

During harvest time, the team has to punch down the cap on each batch of wine every two to three hours around the clock for three to four days. This means that for about three months of the year, work for Jerome’s team becomes a 24/7 affair, and he is responsible for ensuring that the work is carried out on schedule.

Kanonkop employs about 50 permanent workers, most of whom live on the farm. All the workers belong to a pension fund and contribute a monthly amount equal to that paid by the employer. According to Jerome, they do not own the houses they live in, but have lifelong tenure.

“The farm worker housing issue is a very difficult one. Here on the farm we now have a situation where all the houses are occupied, some by people who have retired, and there’s no space to build more houses, so we can’t offer new workers accommodation.”

Jerome is puzzled by government’s apparent fixation on granting farm workers land and shareholding in farms, while paying little attention to the more pressing problem of farm worker housing. “Everywhere I go, farm workers tell me they want houses, not land. And what’s the purpose of giving people land if what they really need is security in terms of housing?”

Jerome suggests that land owners, farm workers and government enter into a three-way partnership to resolve the housing issue and give farm workers ownership of their houses. This would mean that workers, land owners and government each carry a third of the cost of buying and transferring ownership of houses to farm workers. A similar approach could be used to buy off-farm houses for those who cannot be accommodated on farms.

Better working relationship
Jerome says that farmers who are often in conflict with their employees have to consider that “if you treat the people who work for you poorly, they will repay you in kind. If you do not care about them, they will not care about the work they are doing”.

There is much room for improvement in the relationship between farmers and farm workers, he stresses, and the key is better communication.

“Employers or farm owners and workers need to learn to trust each other and the only way is to first learn how to communicate with each other.”

He suggests that on those farms where the relationship between the employer and the workers is unsatisfactory, the farm workers establish a farm worker representative committee to act as their mouthpiece. The dynamic between farmers and farm workers has to change. Farmers, he points out, should not have a sense of superiority when it comes to farm worker relations.

“There has to be an open, equal and honest relationship between the farm owner and the farm workers.” Jerome says that farmers do not often entrust farm workers with enough responsibility, and this results in people living up to what is expected of them.

“When will we realise that we are the same – farmers and farm workers? A farmer is as much a farm worker as a farm worker is a farmer. Are we not in the same business? Do we not do the same job? And do we not all do this job because of our love of farming?” According to him, farm workers are as dedicated as farmers to ensuring the success of the agriculture sector.

As an ardent agriculturalist, Jerome’s next step is to start his own farming business. “Farming is my passion. Of course I want to own my own farm one day. I’ve already started looking for land where I can start a mixed farming operation,” he explains.
But in the meantime, Jerome remains fully committed to leading his immediate colleagues and the wider farm worker community towards a better future.

Phone Jerome Thomas on 082 040 0063 or email him at [email protected].