Farmworkers expect to benefit from good rains and bumper harvests

As soon as the new national minimum wage was announced, bringing the wages of farmworkers in line with workers in all other sectors with low pay, the agriculture lobby was out in full force to suggest it would lead to huge job losses, shifts away from labour-intensive product lines and generally the sort of catastrophe we can ill afford at this point.

The message from the lobby was “we only want government to realise that farmers cannot afford the wage increases”, as the Transvaal Agricultural Union’s president suggested. Farmers in general? Or some farmers? Any job lost in this difficult moment has painful household and macroeconomic implications. However, generalisations of this sort are not helpful in balancing the two objectives at play here.

The first is to ensure the viability and survival of agricultural enterprises and jobs in a moment where unemployment and hunger loom large. The second is to ensure inclusive benefit from the good rains and the bumper harvest many in the sector expect.

READ MORE - Agricultural sector starts process against minimum wage for farmworkers- South Africa

For this to happen there is a need to recognise where the sector comes from. In the 1930s the Native Economic Commission would hear evidence that “native farm workers” were receiving 10 to 15 shillings, and in such a context, with rigid measures on mobility and the result of decades of dispossession of land and livestock, many Africans were desperate. As one farmer in Queenstown recounted to the commission in 1931: “I can tell you that many of them are in very great need of employment, they are willing to work for a very small wage, indeed at anything which they understand ...”

Many of these features, of desperation and no fixed abode, persist for many labourers working in the sector, who move insecurely from farm to farm, neighbouring township to township, in search of work and shelter. In response to the pleas of the lobby we may want to consider these sectors that employ a considerable number of farmworkers.

Stats SA data from the third quarter of 2020 showed that 808,000 people worked in the sector, just more than 5% of all employment. If we consider Stats SA agriculture data from 2017, nearly 60% of these workers would have been involved in the growing of crops and horticulture, many in work of limited or unspecified duration.

Yet these it seems were the workers “fortunate” enough to get work. Many others, living in settlements and townships on the periphery of commercial agriculture, live an insecure existence. The 2011 census suggests more than 2.7-million South Africans live in what would be seen as “farm areas”. It seems fewer than half of this population would have been gainfully engaged in agricultural activities.

This explains the low wage basis of the sector and the weak bargaining position of many workers in the sector. When the De Doorns protests took place nearly a decade ago it seemed the powder keg of social relations in this sector was playing out in full view. It showed that while wages influenced the sustainability of many firms it was patronising for the sector to suggest that wages below subsistence needs were foundational to its survival. Other factors were also at play. While sympathetic to the bargaining challenges of farmgate producers in relation to retailers and other value chain players, to suggest that wages be “frozen” in the cheap labour basis of old reflects the entrenched attitudes of many in the sector.

“There are people who have not taken the care to understand what the new SA is and what are the rights of people,” as deputy agriculture & land reform minister Mcebisi Skwatsha suggested on MetroFMTalk last week. These rights to “hearth and home” are as much the rights of security guards as they are of farmworkers. If market structure issues require resolution, then the energies of the lobby and the government must focus on those changes, rather than advocacy for below-subsistence wages.

Two years into the national minimum wage’s implementation, it speaks volumes of the mood of partnership when those who speak for farmers deny their responsibility to the co-producers of the food we all eat.

• Cawe (@aycawe), a development economist, is MD of Xesibe Holdings and hosts MetroFMTalk on Metro FM.