Legislation driving workers away from farms?

The reduction in farm labour is due to globalisation, agricultural competition, the lack of skilled labour, rigid ­employment legislation and ill-timed land tenure laws, says Prof Doreen ­Atkinson, visiting professor at the ­University of the Free State and author of Going for Broke, a new book about the history and plight of farmworkers.

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Agriculture has emerged from two decades of severe trials and hardships, having survived globalisation and restructuring. Now that government has played its hand in terms of farm labour legislation, land tenure and land reform, it’s critical that new forms of cooperation are created along new avenues of development. We need a more holistic approach to rural development, encapsulating on-farm and off-farm livelihoods, while building on farmworkers’ existing skills and sense of entrepreneurship. There are still major bureaucratic obstacles in the way of achieving this goal, but with strong government leadership new spaces for cooperation can be created.

Farm labour in South Africa has suffered enormous disadvantages for well over a century, with various government policies intentionally or unintentionally undermining the position of farmworkers in the economy. In the post-apartheid era their interests have barely surfaced on the public agenda, with the exception of the poorly designed Extension of Security of Tenure Act – a piece of legislation which fundamentally misunderstands the underlying demographics and economic dynamics of South African society.

Legislation leads to downsizing

The downsizing trend on farms will continue to have far-reaching effects on workers, their families and platteland communities at large. The chances that retrenched workers will be re-employed on farms are remote. So they will continue to move to towns where their chances of finding formal-sector jobs are equally remote. The reduction in farm labour is due to globalisation, agricultural competition, the lack of skilled labour, rigid employment legislation and ill-timed land tenure laws. This legislation, which was meant to improve conditions for farmworkers, has contributed to job losses, and consequently people have lost their housing and other on-farm benefits. The reduction in the number of farmworkers contributes to the increase in unemployment and entrenches poverty, with all its concomitant social problems. Many ex-farmworkers possess skills that are now going to waste.

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No foundation for rural living

The termination of the Rural Foundation has left a void in service delivery to farmworkers. Today, NGOs serving farmworkers are small, financially fragile and unsustainable. Government services to farmworkers are deteriorating, resulting in farmworkers either migrating permanently or commuting to towns to access services. Poor rural transport has a major impact on farmworkers’ quality of life and social networks. Roads need significant maintenance as farming communities become increasingly difficult to reach.

Training workers to uplift communities

On the other hand, commercial farmers appear to be increasingly positive about agricultural training for farmworkers. Training would improve not only agricultural productivity, but also workers’ livelihoods and circumstances. However, there are few options for formal training, and the services and financing provided by the Department of Labour are generally unknown or inaccessible. Many farmers are prepared to provide training on a more formal basis, and many farmworkers would be keen to receive such training. This will provide a valuable reservoir of social capital which can be utilised much more effectively. The involvement of NGOs should be encouraged, particularly with regard to training, recreation and social services. Farmers’ associations and agricultural cooperatives could play a significant role.

Legislation causes distrust

Unfortunately, the relationship between farmer and farmworker has been significantly affected by the new labour and land tenure legislation, which has created a measure of reciprocal distrust between some farmers and their workers. Some farmers believe government is hostile towards them, and these feelings are then carried over into their relationship with their workers.

The farmworker is the victim of lingering tensions that have developed between farmers and the government. Some farmers have interpreted the laws in a positive spirit and still have good relationships with their workers, but much more could have been done to encourage good relationships between government and farmers, to dilute and defuse the negative impacts of land and labour laws. Twisted relationships affect land reform. While many farmers are eager to assist emerging farmers, they have serious reservations about the ways in which land redistribution is being implemented.

More discussions between government and the farming sector – at national, provincial and local level – could help find realistic and sustainable ways of promoting land reform, and to clarify the various parties’ roles and contributions. Urgent talks should be held at grassroots level between government departments, farmers and farmworkers about matters such as the impact of land and labour legislation; the extension of government services to the farming community; the training of farmworkers; providing incentives to employers to bring about real improvements in the quality of life of farmworkers; and promotion and fast-tracking of alternative models of land reform, including peri-urban smallscale agriculture. Municipal Integrated Development Plans (IDPs) can play an important role in galvanising local alliances and designing local programmes. – Roelof Bezuidenhout
Going for Broke is available at Exclusive Books or at Kalahari.net.