Still getting NOWHERE

The 2010 Farm Workers’ Summit was meant to improve working conditions. But it seems that little has changed.

After two years, I’m still waiting for someone to convince me how the 2010 Farm Workers’ Summit has improved the lives of farm workers. The results or ‘outcomes’ of the summit, which cost taxpayers about R12 million, should be evaluated. And questions need to be asked, such as: what was it really about?

Was it really about trying to improve the lives of those who are having a hard time on farms? Or was it simply a way of scoring
cheap political points? When I talk about farm workers, incidentally, I include those on white- and black-owned farms. And I realise that the majority of farmers do not expect their employees to work under unacceptable working conditions.

But we have to admit there are some cases that are a cause for concern. Like the farm near Bethlehem in Free State where farm workers were found living in horse stables during a recent raid by the labour minister. The stables had been converted into rooms without proper ventilation.

It is instances such as these that I thought the summit would help curb. Well, I guess not. What got me thinking about the summit was the story of a worker I encountered on a farm near Brits recently. This man, who showed me around his boss’s farm, had a finger missing, and I asked him how he had lost it. He told me that before starting his present job, he had worked at a nearby crocodile farm, and one of the reptiles had bitten off his finger while being moved to a new enclosure.

This kind of incident could have happened to anyone working with these animals. What was unfortunate was the way in which it was dealt with. Hoping to get at least some compensation for being injured on duty, he went to the labour department office in Brits, where he was told to fetch his hospital file.

When he went back to the hospital to ask for the file, it had mysteriously disappeared. He had a second one made for him, but the labour department insisted on the original. After struggling with the department, he turned to the police, who simply sent him back to the department. Tired of being sent from pillar to post, he finally resigned. After six years of working on the crocodile farm, during which he had faithfully paid UIF, he hasn’t received a single cent from the fund.

And government’s response?
One of the findings of the Farm Workers’ Summit was that workers do not report incidents for fear of being victimised. This may indeed be a problem and obviously needs investigation, but it is only one aspect of mistreatment. In the case of this crocodile farm worker, here was a man who was injured, who followed all the right channels to obtain compensation – and was badly abused by the system.

In addition to examining alleged mistreatment of workers by farmers, we need to get to the bottom of why government, through its various departments, allows incidents such as that of the crocodile farm worker to take place.