Forum – farm workers not ‘vulnerable workers’

The Farm Workers’ Forum was initiated in the Western Cape to offer alternative representation for workers. One of the founding members, Rita Andreas, spoke to Denene Erasmus.

Forum – farm workers not ‘vulnerable workers’
Rita Andreas
Photo: Denene Erasmus
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How does the Farm Workers’ Forum differ from unions and other bodies currently offering workers protection in terms of working conditions?
The unions follow a different approach than the forum. We believe that the farmer must have full knowledge of what the forum’s ideas and intentions are – there is no reason for secrecy. If a farmer does not agree with us and what we intend to do, we discuss our differences until a compromise is reached.

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What is the greatest challenge affecting farm workers’ living conditions?
The problem we have with housing on farms is that when people grow old and retire, you cannot expect them to leave and find somewhere else to live, but if they stay, they are taking up a house that could be used by an active worker. From what we have seen, farmers are really doing their part in improving the living conditions in workers’ houses, but they should not carry all the responsibility themselves.

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One of the slogans being brandished by the forum is ‘Nothing about us, without us’. Could you elaborate on this sentiment?
We don’t want politicians, union leaders or anyone who is not a farm worker to talk on our behalf. We want to represent ourselves.

I find it extremely offensive when people refer to farm workers as “vulnerable workers”. What are they implying – that we are weak, helpless and cannot stand up for ourselves? By referring to farm workers as “vulnerable workers”, no recognition is given to the great strides that they have made to improve themselves. Many of us might start out as general labourers, such as fruit pickers, but there are many professional and training opportunities available to farm workers nowadays, and many of us hold highly specialised, well-paying positions.

What is government’s responsibility towards farm workers?
Currently, the government assumes no responsibility for farm workers and we would like to see the state come to the table. We agree that the minimum wage needed to be adjusted, but where was government when farmers earnestly said they could not afford to carry the increase? Why could it not offer some kind of wage subsidy that would allow the industry time to adjust to the wages?

We would also like to see some of the excise duties from wine sales, which are currently flowing into state coffers, flow back to the farm to support workers. Government seems to miss the point that if it offers support to farmers, it would in fact, be doing more for workers than by simply imposing an unaffordable minimum wage increase.

The forum might not agree with the way in which the strikes were conducted, but it can be argued that the strikes were successful because the minimum wage was increased as a result. So were the strikes not ultimately to the benefit of all workers?
No. Over the long-term, this rash, ill-advised wage increase will not make much difference in the lives of farm workers.
As I said, farmers had to make cuts elsewhere to be able to afford the higher wage. I think in many cases, workers are now left with less cash in their pockets than before the increase.

You are currently active only in the Western Cape. Is the forum planning on expanding operations to other provinces?
There are plans to expand on a national level. We will meet on 11 April to discuss and introduce our plans to launch in other provinces.

Phone the Farm Workers’ Forum on 078 624 5989.


This article was originally published in the 7 February 2014 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.

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Denene hails from a sugar cane farm in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal, but after school she relocated to the Cape Winelands to study, for many years, at the University of Stellenbosch. She worked as a journalist for Farmer’s Weekly since 2009 and in 2015 moved to Johannesburg as Deputy editor for the magazine. In 2016 she was appointed editor, and at the end of 2021, she stepped down from her position to pursue her journalism career.