Workers Protected by Law, but Not in the Fields
August 23, 2011
The wealth and well-being these workers produce shouldn’t be rooted in human misery. The government, and the industries and farmers themselves, need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms.
Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch

(Cape Town) – Workers in Western Cape province who help produce South Africa’s renowned wines and fruit are denied adequate housing, proper safety equipment, and basic labor rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government of South Africa, along with the industries that employ these laborers, should take immediate steps to improve their working and housing conditions, Human Rights Watch said.

The 96-page report, “Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries,” documents conditions that include on-site housing that is unfit for living, exposure to pesticides without proper safety equipment, lack of access to toilets or drinking water while working, and efforts to block workers from forming unions. While the Western Cape’s fruit and wine industries contribute billions of rand to the country’s economy, support tourism, and are enjoyed by consumers around the world, their farmworkers earn among the lowest wages in South Africa. The report also describes insecure tenure rights and threats of eviction for longtime residents on farms.

“The wealth and well-being these workers produce shouldn’t be rooted in human misery,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government, and the industries and farmers themselves, need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms.”

The report is based on more than 260 interviews with farmworkers, farm owners, civil society members, industry representatives, government officials, lawyers, union officials, and academic experts.

South Africa has laws guaranteeing wages, benefits, and safe working and housing conditions for workers and other farm dwellers. But the law affords workers much greater labor and housing protections than they receive because the government largely has failed to monitor conditions and enforce the laws, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch found the housing for some workers uninhabitable. One farmworker showed Human Rights Watch the former pig stall without electricity, water, or protection from the elements where he has lived with his wife and children for 10 years. “It makes me very unhappy,” his wife said, “because I can’t guarantee [the] safety of [my] children and can’t provide for [my] children.”

Many farmworkers live on farms as part of their employment arrangement; they are joined by family members and former workers, including those who can no longer work because they are too old or injured. These farm dwellers’ land tenure rights are protected under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act, enacted in 1997. Yet, by civil society estimates, more than 930,000 people were evicted from South African farms between 1994 and 2004. The government does not keep statistics on numbers of evictions, but people interviewed described a steady pace of evictions, particularly when laborers are no longer able to work. Evicted workers who spoke with Human Rights Watch had not been given suitable alternative housing or adequate compensation to find new housing.

Farmers sometimes resort to illegal tactics to get farm dwellers to leave, including cutting electricity or water. In one case, farm managers severed electricity for more than a year for a family with two children. Security guards on the farm harassed families in the middle of the night with dogs.

Although it is a crime for owners to evict occupiers from land without following required procedures, the authorities rarely initiate criminal proceedings. And even when farmers follow legal procedures, evicted farm dwellers often have no place to go. Municipal governments are generally unprepared to assist them, and some end up homeless.

Occupational health and safety conditions on many farms endanger workers, Human Rights Watch found. The majority of the current and former farmworkers interviewed about these conditions said they had been exposed to pesticides without adequate safety equipment. In addition, many employers jeopardize workers’ health by not providing them with access to drinking water, hand washing facilities, or toilets, even though these are required by labor regulations. When farmworkers are ill or injured, as is fairly common in this line of dangerous work, they are almost always refused the paid sick leave required by law unless they provide a medical certificate.

“Given what we know about the effects of pesticide use, it is unconscionable that some of these workers are not provided appropriate safety equipment, even after they ask for it,” Bekele said.

Farmworkers are some of the most poorly organized workers in the country, with estimates of union “density” – the percentage of workers represented by trade unions – in the Western Cape agricultural sector as low as 3 percent, compared with 30 percent among those with formal employment in the country as a whole. Human Rights Watch found that some farmers try to prevent workers from forming unions, though the right to organize is protected under South Africa’s constitution and international law.

The problems that farmworkers and farm dwellers face are not unknown to the South African government, farmers, or retailers who purchase their products. Indeed, in 2003 and again in 2008, the South African Human Rights Commission documented similar abuses. But steps taken by the government and industry to improve conditions have not been sufficient to ensure that overall conditions on farms meet the basic standards required by South African law.

At the time Human Rights Watch conducted its research, in March 2011, the Western Cape had 107 labor inspectors, responsible for inspecting over 6,000 farms and all other workplaces in the province. Moreover, an agreement between the Department of Labour, Agri South Africa – the main farmers’ association ­– and other parties that requires labor inspectors to give farmers notice of inspections undermines the inspectors’ capacity to identify violations, Human Rights Watch said.

Conditions on farms vary, and not all farmworkers with whom Human Rights Watch spoke had encountered rights abuses. In a small number of cases, farmworkers and farm owners described full compliance with the law as well as a variety of positive practices by employers that went beyond the legally requirements. Some farmers give workers land to grow their own crops, pay the full cost of medical visits, provide free food to workers in the winter, or have set up trusts that benefit farmworkers. Farmers who provided these benefits to farmworkers noted that these efforts can be profitable.

South African fruit and wine is sold domestically and exported overseas. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands are the top destinations for Western Cape fruit, and the UK and Germany are the biggest importers of South African wine. Canada, the United States, and other European nations are also important markets for South African wine. On about one-half of the farms whose conditions Human Rights Watch studied, either farmers or workers said that the products were produced for the export market. The report did not trace the supply chain for the products and does not identify farms to reduce the risk of retaliation against workers.

Industry bodies, farmers’ associations, and ethical trade initiatives should ensure that workers’ rights are respected, Human Rights Watch said. They should work with the South African government to guarantee that the workers who help produce fruit and wine receive adequate housing, benefits, and health protections.

“The answer is not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers,” Bekele said. “But we are asking retailers to press their suppliers to ensure that there are decent conditions on the farms that produce the products they buy and sell to their customers.” 

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