Agri SA for farmworkers

There’s great optimism over the South African Farm Workers Association (SAFWA), as it takes the farmworker’s wellbeing to heart and aims to empower the worker, leaving the farmer free to concentrate on farming again. Glenneis Erasmus talked to Shawn MacKenzie, chairperson of the association.
Issue date : 29 August 2008

- Advertisement -

What is your background and why did you initiate SAFWA?
Our CEO Cedric Bruintjies and I grew up on farms just outside Wellington. We used to work in farmworker unions, but felt these didn’t address the needs of workers in the way we felt they should be addressed. There’s nothing wrong with such unions – they have an important role to play in empowerment. We just felt that we wanted to get more involved in the social and economic upliftment of farmworkers. By forming SAFWA, we have created a huge opportunity for all of us to give back to farmworkers. They are among the most important contributors to sustainable production and food security. They ensure there’s food on the tables

So what makes SAFWA different from a farmworker union?
We see the fact that workers can’t speak for themselves in a united voice as one of the industry’s weaknesses. Our aim is to be the voice for workers, just as Agri SA is a voice for farmers. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel or duplicate any existing programmes. Our goal is to facilitate processes and introduce farmers and their workers to groups that would be able to help address their specific needs on their specific farms. We will also help groups to generate funds for projects.

Obviously, there could be a conflict of interestbetween you and farmers. Will you go to the media or organise strikes to deal with conflict?
Our goal is to enhance productivity on farms. We won’t succeed in this by toyi-toyiing, organising strikes or making use of negative publicity to defame certain farmers. These actions usually have a negative impact on the whole agricultural industry – not just the farmers that are being criticised. We would rather facilitate the negotiation process and resolve matters in this way. We will also always aim to supply farmers with at least two ways to address problems. If farmers don’t conform to the agricultural code, then we will refer the matter to Agri Wes-Cape – one of our social partners. We might, however, help workers to get legal representation. In a nutshell, we’ll be the facilitators and in a conflict situation, we will present farmworkers and farmers with information to help them resolve their disputes peacefully.

- Advertisement -

SAFWU aspires to bring farmworkers and farmers closer together. How do you intend to do this?
The relationship between farmworkers and farmers has gone sour in some regions, because of apartheid and because of the interference of third parties who don’t carry agriculture’s best interests at heart. Many farmers no longer want to employ workers because of social problems. We want to create a situation where farmers can concentrate on farming again without having to worry about their workers’ wellbeing. We want to work closely with workers and farmers to identify ways to address the needs of farmworkers, which will ultimately have a positive impact on their work performance and their relationships with others.

One of your plans is to help facilitate the establishment of agri villages. What would be the advantages of these?
Agri villages are still a sensitive issue, so I can’t elaborate much. Many organisations are in favour of the idea, but nothing is happening. Farmworkers usually have problems adapting in towns. Hence the benefit to workers is that they would live in a place where people have the same social background as they do. The villages would be ideal for pensioners, as they would be close to the services they are entitled to in town. Farmers, on the other hand, would benefit as housing previously used for these pensioners would now become available for existing employees.

How do you feel about the expropriation of farm tenants?
Expropriation, whether legal or illegal, has a negative impact on the life of all the family members. People subjected to expropriation are often misused by organisations and this results in strikes and illegal land occupation. The expropriated people become branded in the process, so nobody wants to employ them afterwards. Nothing, however, happens to the organisation. We don’t want to see this happen. We want to create a situation where people who are moved from farms are not stigmatised and have been empowered to efficiently deal with the situation.

How do you feel about land reform and BEE?
Land reform is essential for political stability. We do, however, feel that government should revisit some of its strategies to enhance the success rate and speed of delivery. We also feel that government should utilise the skills of existing farmers better through mentorship programmes. Farmers currently feel excluded from the process. Instead of letting commercial farmers who sold their land for transformation go to New Zealand or Australia, we should create a mentorship desk where these farmers can share their experiences with new farmers. In this way, farming skills would be retained in the country.

As far as black economic empowerment is concerned, farmers should realise that most workers don’t want to farm. Those who have aspirations to farm should be screened and empowered so that they can use government’s land reform programmes. The rest of the people can be empowered through training and the enhancement of their living conditions. Our priority is to give people access to more options. This can be achieved through training. We‘ve found that most farmers want to empower their workers, but many don’t know where to start or what they can do. We want to introduce them to organisations that can help them by providing training and subsidising empowerment projects. Farmers don’t always get enough recognition for what they have done to empower their workers.

SAWFU places great emphasis on the economic empowerment of workers. How do you want to achieve this?
 Everybody knows that agricultural profit margins are under pressure due to rising input costs. We don’t expect farmers to pay their workers more – this would be unrealistic. We want to introduce methods to help workers to keep more money in their pockets. For example, we want to facilitate courses to improve workers’ financial management skills. We want to introduce projects to ease their financial burdens, like a cooperative system where workers can buy staple food at a lower cost, or coordinate food gardens on farms so workers can produce food and sell what they don’t need. We can even help to coordinate food markets, so instead of farmers taking their workers to town, they would take them to a central point where they can do their shopping. All this can help to reduce their expenses.

You also have some thoughts concerning the AllPay system …
 We want to create a system where workers won’t have to take the day off to collect their AllPay money, to the benefit of the farmer and the worker. We also want to create a card system where AllPay can only be used to buy clothes or food, as that’s what it’s intended for. By doing this, we want to prevent the money from being spent on alcohol.

How are you going to prevent the misuse of funds?
We want to base our financial model on that of Agri Wes-Cape. We want it to be completely transparent and to indicate exactly where funds are going to, as well as the success of projects. Contact Shawn MacKenzie on 084739 4401 or e-mail [email protected]. |fw •