You Can’t Spin Away Labor Exploitation

Last week, I wedged myself into a crowded church in rural South Africa, listening to farmworkers recite a litany of complaints about working conditions on their farms. As people spoke, the farmworkers kept coming, in pairs and small groups, trickling in after Sunday services or other commitments. After over an hour of talking, we had to move outside to accommodate the large numbers. There must have been at least 250 workers there, sitting outside the church in a township of De Doorns.

After hearing of problems on numerous farms, one of the meeting organizers asked if there was anyone working on a farm without problems. The workers looked around, puzzled. Finally, one woman raised her arm. “No, not on ours.” She shook her head. “But the farmer has promised to raise our wages. And he has not told us when or how much.” Other workers from the same farm agreed, their faces belying frustration with such a vague promise.

Nearly four hours later, I left the meeting with the unsettling thought that not much had changed since I researched labor rights there in 2010 and 2011. Workers were raising the same problems. They were still struggling to live on pitiful wages, generally less than 70 Rand ($8)/day. Despite the worldwide media attention that focused, briefly, on the human rights abuses against farmworkers in the Western Cape, no real discernable change had arisen.

A week later, De Doorns was ablaze. According to media reports, the same area where I had listened to farmworkers was now thick with smoke, as protestors set vineyards on fire and blocked the national highway. Thousands of farmworkers were estimated to be on strike, while one farm owner had been arrested for attempted murder after allegedly shooting at workers. Police reinforcements were called in. Unions, NGOs, and government officials rushed to the area. The Commission on Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) arrived to facilitate negotiations. The farmers’ lobby denounced the workers for not having a unified demand, as if different needs by different groups made it impossible to negotiate.

The Western Cape Minister for Agriculture immediately began his media outreach. He blamed the unrest on political motives. He claimed that “there are very good relations between farmers and farm workers in the area.” He said it wasn’t the traditional farmworkers who were protesting, but seasonal workers (ignoring that seasonal workers are traditionally used, year after year after insecure year). Eventually, he seemed to concede that this was in fact a labor problem.

The Minister’s kneejerk reaction was all too familiar to me. When Human Rights Watch released its report on farmworkers in the Western Cape last year, the MEC began a press offensive, spinning the issues and making veiled threats in the media. He tried to bully me into handing over confidential information, until he eventually had to back down from his aggressive stance when a third party offered to take him along on farm visits. If only he had put as much effort into addressing the real issues on the ground as he had at media outreach, the simmering tensions might have been diffused before they exploded. A conscientious effort to address farm labor exploitation might have nudged the farming communities toward improved conditions and greater dignity. Instead, workers still talk of struggling to survive on 350 Rand per week, while the farmers in De Doorns now estimate 70 million Rands worth of damage.

Which begs the question:  is it ever in the ruling classes’ interest to avoid the truth? Is it not in everyone’s long-term interests to address human rights abuses, to ensure that laws are properly enforced?

I condemn all violent actions that have occurred in De Doorns. I say this apolitically:  as an American, I’m not a member of any South African political party. Burning vineyards is not in the best interests of anyone in the community, and shooting at protestors is clearly unacceptable. But I do think that this chaos should serve as a warning to anyone who is tempted to sweep human rights abuses under the carpet, because only so much can be hidden before the consequences of such abuses burst, unruly and uncontrolled, back into sight. With the arrival of the CCMA, the community in De Doorns has a unique opportunity to negotiate better and more dignified working conditions on farms. I hope that the opportunity is taken seriously, so that COSATU’s prediction that continued exploitation will lead to a “Marikana in De Doorns” does not come true.

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