The truth about labour

It’s a tall order, but why not take the politics out of
farm labour and concentrate on what will actually work, asks journalist and farmer Roelof Bezuidenhout.

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Farm labour! The issue is so diverse, complicated and politicised only the very brave or the very foolish will tackle it in the public arena. Consequently, it never dawns on unwitting city folk, ignorant as they are about rural life, that black commercial farmers face exactly the same labour problems their white colleagues have to deal with.In other words, stripped to the bone, the problem is one of labour, not race.

The race card lies in the numbers. More food for thought, and seldom mentioned, is that more policemen than farmers have been murdered since 1994.Another neglected point is that unemployment in rural areas is even greater than in urban areas. The obvious reasons for this are that rural dwellers are older, less educated and trained and their job opportunities are largely limited to farm work.

What’s more, like other sectors, agriculture is continuously shedding jobs – a situation that’s unlikely to be helped by the creeping involvement of trade unions.

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It’s not only farm labourers who are marginalised. Throughout the world, farm owners are counted among the neglected and poorer segments of the population. It’s therefore logical that farm work will, generally speaking, fall into the unskilled category, where wages and working conditions are largely determined by the supply of hands rather than demand for special skills.

Strict legislation regarding minimum wages and working hours protect these semi-literate people who would struggle to survive anywhere else.One of the goals of non-govermental organisations (NGOs) that represent farmworkers and farm dwellers is to give them job fulfilment and career paths so they can feel connected to the farm. This implies the education and training of workers which, in turn, means higher levels of productivity, responsibility and pay. The result will be further downsizing.

While labour organisations have every right to fight for their members they should do so responsibly and show an understanding of the demands and limitations of agriculture, particularly in arid South Africa. Placing the onus for rural development on the hard-pressed commercial sector alone is a dangerous game because it ignores too many realities. Organised agriculture must admit that the future of farmworkers should have been at the top of their agenda long ago.

Now, not having prepared for the onslaught against commercial farmers, Agri SA is fighting from a very weak position. While they can make out a case for themselves in closed chambers, they can hardly be expected to make themselves heard at political rallies. Besides, the commodity organisations might be more representative of commercial farming than either Agri SA or TAU.

While organised agriculture is busy putting out fires, company farms and bigger farmers who have the funds are continuing to invest in their labour force, training them, appointing managers and forming partnerships. That kind of investment doesn’t necessarily free them from labour problems, but they’re on firmer ground. Smaller farmers who have shirked their responsibilities, either because of a shortage of cash, a lack of confidence in the future of landownership, or an inability to cultivate good relationships, now have to make do with part-time workers instead of loyal employees.

This is the possible source of most of the trouble.Despite the angry farmworker summits and the accusations levelled at farmers, thousands of farm dwellers wake up every morning thankful they don’t work in the city where their employers don’t even know (or care) where they live.Thousands of dedicated commercial farmers are hoping the debate will not only lead to a better deal for farmworkers, but will also improve the image of farming and put the industry in a better position to compete internationally in the face of rising input costs and imports.     |fw
The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.