Striking Farmworkers in South Africa

I’m not a member of a union. If you speak about union, you will lose [your] job or [be] treated bad.
– Human Rights Watch interview with “Kiersten H.,” Grabouw, South Africa, 2010, from “Ripe with Abuse.

One of the ironies that struck me while working with farmworkers in South Africa was that, although unions are very powerful in South Africa, union formation among farmworkers is extremely low – estimated at only 3-5% of workers. There are many factors, but it essentially boils down to this:  union organizers find it difficult to support farms that are spread throughout rural areas, and farmworkers frequently face threats, discrimination, and potential job loss when it comes to forming unions.

This low level of union formation, combined with the general precariousness of farm work and the high levels of rural unemployment, means that it is extremely rare for farmworkers in South Africa (or anywhere) to strike. It’s too risky, too easy to be fired, and too much is at stake for workers who depend on farm jobs for housing or other benefits.

So I learned with surprise that a group of farmworkers in De Doorns, South Africa – the country’s hub of table grape farming for export – recently went on strike. This is a brave move. Braam Hanekom, of the organization PASSOP, notes that, as far as he knows, these workers are the only ones who have gone on strike in the Hex River Valley region for the past 50 years.

Why did farmworkers take this risk? In its press release, PASSOP notes that the export-oriented grape farm had come under new management, which attempted to force workers to sign new contracts stipulating lower wages. In one of the lowest-paid South African industries, where workers often struggle to survive with dignity, this is no joke. PASSOP also notes that the workers have alleged “numerous rights violations occurring in their work place.”

Last year, Fruit South Africa, an industry body, was touting its new Ethical Trade Program (though, rather weakly, it defined ethical trade as simply implementing labor legislation). When I spoke to them back then, they had undertaken ad-hoc efforts to address problems on specific farms. Will they get involved again?

The strike, and efforts by the farm’s management to circumvent it, have potential repercussions for the larger community, too. If management attempts to undermine the strike by using labor brokers to hire replacement workers, as PASSOP claims, their action could lead to increased tensions between local workers and foreign migrant workers. Given the xenophobic violence that erupted in 2009 in the same community, inflamed tensions could have disastrous consequences.

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