Agri SA blasts labour minister’s ‘intimidating’ farm inspections

National farmers’ union Agri SA has expressed frustration and disappointment at what it described as often threatening and intimidating tactics when the labour minister recently carried out inspections of farming operations.

National farmers’ union Agri SA has expressed frustration and disappointment at what it described as often threatening and intimidating tactics when the labour minister recently carried out inspections of farming operations.

Labour minister Mildred Oliphant, together with a sizeable entourage, reportedly descended unannounced on 23 farms in the Nkomazi Municipality in Mpumalanga to carry out inspections to determine the farms’ compliance with labour legislation.

A Department of Labour (DoL) statement said only four of these farms were fully compliant with labour laws. The other 19 received notices for various infringements including the unsafe storage of dangerous chemicals, a lack of suitable protective clothing for handling these chemicals, and the unsafe operation of a generator.

“The purpose of the inspection is not punitive but to help farmers understand their requirements and what is expected of them,” Oliphant said. “Where we issue notices, we expect compliance within a certain period. Inspectors will be sent back to check if changes have been affected.”

Agri SA said it’s still trying to gain more clarity on these inspections, but information trickling in indicates that some of the farmers inspected by Oliphant and her team had felt intimidated by the size of the group and in one case had even been threatened by the inspection team.

According to the DoL’s statement, Oliphant was accompanied by officials from her department, the mayor, mayoral committee and ward councillors of the Nkomazi Municipality; the chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Labour; and the leadership of Cosatu and the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa).

Kwanalu vice-president Robin Barnsley said this goes against the on-farm protocal negotiated with government at national level for farm security.

Said Agri SA’s portfolio manager for labour Elize van der Westhuizen, “The minister and her entourage did not make any appointments to visit the farms, and of the 13 people who came to inspect the farms, only two of them could properly identify themselves as official labour inspectors.” “For security reasons, there is a protocol for labour inspectors to follow and this was not done. The way these inspections were carried out was unacceptable and unfair.”

She added that one farmer faced the wrath of the inspection team for letting his employees off work early on the Friday afternoon before the inspection team arrived unannounced, even though this is the farmer’s prerogative. The inspection team reportedly grew angry with the farmer because his employee records were unavailable for viewing, because the farm’s administrator had also been given the afternoon off, locked the files in a cabinet and left with the key.

Van der Westhuizen said, “On the other hand, we had a report recently of a Mpumalanga farmer who was greatly impressed with the professionalism and constructive criticism of a labour inspector who visited his farm two weeks before the minister visited Nkomazi.

“This farmer told us the labour inspector first made an appointment. When she found a few problems with the farmer’s compliance with labour legislation, she told him how to go about fixing them and scheduled another appointment to check that it was done.”

Agri SA complained that since October 2010 it has tried unsuccessfully to arrange meetings with Oliphant and the DoL’s director-general, and has also written two letters to the minister, all to try and get the DoL and its labour inspection teams to adhere to inspection protocols. No response to the letters was ever received. – Lloyd Phillips