Labour contracting: a new approach to workers

In 2001 Former farmer Philip Swart experienced any farmer’s worst nightmare
Issue date 24 August 2007

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In 2001 Former farmer Philip Swart experienced any farmer’s worst nightmare. His family farm in Robertson, Western Cape, had slipped out of his hands, together with the only job he had ever known. But Philip took the setback in his stride, and did what any farmer worth his salt would have done: “‘n Boer maak ‘n plan” as the saying goes. Philip started working for a local labour contractor and after realising the potential of such a business, struck out on his own. In 2002 he started Twakkies Swart Kontrakteur. “My first big contract was to establish 40ha of olive trees. I had an old truck and a 30-man team.

That was five years ago, and since then I have paused only for rain.” Philip currently employs 80 people, working in two teams. clients are mostly in the Breede River Valley, but he also works as far afield as Stellenbosch and Tulbagh. Work all through the year Philip explains, “January to February we are harvesting peaches. March is grape harvesting. to June is olive and tomato harvesting. We also do citrus work from to August. June to August is pruning time and the establishment of new plantings. September and October we plant new vineyards. In November we start harvesting apricots, and then the cycle starts all over again.” T here are many problems and challenges in the labour contracting business. “In my first year I worked with a 50-strong team in Tulbagh,” Philip recalls.

“The farmer disputed the amount of work done and the costs per work unit, although the signed contract was very clear. He still has not paid me, but I somehow had to find money to pay wages.” Training – and keeping – workers Finding skilled labour is becoming increasingly difficult. Philip has to compete against the booming construction industry, which pays higher wages. He believes that a general migration from farms to towns and cities is eroding the skills base of farmworkers. “Over five years I have trained more than 500 people in the art of pruning different kinds of trees and vineyards. Sometimes it is hard to see my 20-odd years of experience transferred to a new worker, only to lose him to the construction industry or another labour contractor. But constant training is the only way to maintain quality work and happy clients,” Philip says. The rise in farming input costs also poses a big challenge. Wine farmers are very critical when it comes to hiring services. This, together with rising costs, is squeezing his margins, forcing him to quote very carefully. “I once took on a contract to plant new vineyard poles in very loose sandy soil – a straightforward job. Little did I know about the huge boulders below the surface!” he recalls. Philip only uses his own tools and transport, and spends the whole day with his team in the field.

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“Many contractors out there are still not registered, and also do not comply with the law regarding minimum wages and worker benefits. I have lost out on quotes, as these operators can always undercut me.” Success, however, is earned over time, and Philip’s clients appreciate the value that he adds to their operations. The real value of his service lies in the fact that farmers can focus on the technical aspects of farming while Philip takes care of time-consuming and labour-intensive work. “It often happens that two things need to be done at the same time. On a modern farm the opportunity cost of a rush job is simply too high, making my services financially viable for the farmer,” he says. Philip is very positive about the future of his business and hopes to expand his two teams to three, and spend more time coordinating them and ensuring continuity in workers’ contracts. “Most of the people who work for me were unemployed and unskilled when they came to me,” Philip says. “I provide them with secure employment throughout the year, training, and all the benefits prescribed by law. Still, people tend to come and go.

There are better-paying jobs in construction, or they do not like the kind of work we are doing at a specific time. Nonetheless, I am proud of the fact that my business provides 80 full-time jobs that are much needed in my community.” One of Philip’s workers, Johannes Carlse agrees. He has been working for Twakkies Swart Kontrakteur since its inception. “I grew up on a farm, but left to find work in town. Since working for Mr Swart, I have learned many new skills, such as pruning and establishing new vineyards. I enjoy pruning most, and want to learn more about it. Mr Swart is a good boss, and this job provides security for my family,” Johannes says. Contact Philip Swart on 082 552 2948. |fw