The Story of a South African Farm

As of March 1 this year, the new base salary for farm workers in South Africa will be R105 a day (about US$11 per day). That’s a 52% pay raise, which sounds impressive until you realize that means currently the base salary is R69 a day (US$7.70 per day). This raise comes after a prolonged, and unprotected, strike by farm workers last year, a strike that put the small Western Cape farming town, De Doorns on the mapagain. The raise will lead to many, and perhaps endless, debates on inputs and consequences. Will the pay raise result in job losses? Will the farmers use the rise in minimum salary as an excuse to fire and evict farm workers and farm dwellers? Given farmers’ retaliatory dismissals and evictions after the strike, it looks likely. How will the salary increase affect inequality? What is inequality, exactly?

Here’s what is clear: the lives of black and coloured farm workers (there are hardly any white farm workers) and their families who live and work on the farms in the bountiful and lush Western Cape of South Africa is impossibly hard. And the hardest hit, every single day and across the span of a life, are women. Women farm workers, women farm dwellers.

Women are paid less than men. Women, sometimes doing exactly the same work as men for exactly the same period of time, are classified, by their employers and by the State, as ‘seasonal’ and ‘temporary’. Women are denied access to positions that might allow for any advancement.

The Western Cape has the highest rates of alcohol abuse accompanied by extraordinary levels of gender-based violence, and trauma, in its farm working communities. The “dop” system of payment (basically paying workers with alcohol) in wine lives on, only in a slightly different guise. What does not change is that at the end of the day, the target of the physical and structural violence is women.

Along with rampant TB, occupational health hazards, such as pesticide, target women as well. Women seldom receive legally mandated protective clothing and equipment. Farm workers live on farms. They often live next to sprayed crops, and so their homes become hot spots for respiratory ailments, skin lesions, and worse. And for the children, of course, it’s worse. All of this then redounds to women’s ‘reproductive labor’ obligations.

Meanwhile, most farm worker households buy their food from company stores, on the farm. Guess what? The prices for food are higher than they are in the cities. In the midst of plenty, food insecurity, hunger, starvation abound, as does a vicious cycle of indebtedness. All of this crystallizes, again, in violence against women.

As Colette Solomon, acting director of Women on Farms, noted, “It’s an immoral perversion that people who are producing food are the ones who don’t have food, and who’s children go to school hungry … It’s invisible hunger and almost normalized.”

The hunger is not invisible. The women farm workers and farm dwellers are not invisible, either. Rather, they aren’t deemed worth commenting on. Women farm workers and farm dwellers appear, more often than not unnamed, in article after article on the farm workers’ strike. They are the specter that haunts the Boland.

The BBC has known for quite a while that life is hard for women farmworkers in the Western Cape. In 2008, it devoted an entire show to South African women farmworkers: “Change is slow — especially for black women who make up the largest number of farm workers on the vineyards.”

A 2011 Human Rights Watch report on the fruit and wine industries of the Western Cape declared that the face of the abused farm worker is a woman’s face. Along with inferior treatment, women workers didn’t receive employment contracts in their own name. Pregnant women were refused employment, and so many hide their pregnancies in order to get a job. For women farm dwellers, it’s worse. They have no rights to housing or anything, which means they have to stay with their partners, in often abusive situations.

And of course, the State gives absolutely no gender specific training to labor inspectors or any other functionaries who might attend to farm workers’ lives. That’s left to the ngo’s, underfunded, understaffed, over-worked, and, at some level, without real power to effect transformative change, much less provide the necessary social services at a mass level.

For women, the conditions of farm labor and farm dwelling are an ever intensifying, ever increasing, ever-expanding toxic stew of vulnerability.

Women farm workers and women farm dwellers know this, and have been organizing. Denia Jansen, a women’s organizer with the Mawubuye Land Rights Movement, has been organizing women farmworkers and women farm dwellers. Women like Sarah Claasen and Wendy Pekeur and thousands of others have worked tirelessly organizing Sikhula Sonke, a women-led trade union social movement that, along with Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), is the home for most farm workers, and farm dwellers, in the Western Cape.

The story of women farm workers and farm dwellers is not a story of abjection nor of individual heroines engaged in tragic, and implicitly impossible, combat. It’s a story of everyday struggle in which women workers know what’s what and don’t like it, and work to change it for the better. Every day. So when you read the stories of farm workers (and when you don’t read the stories of farm dwellers) and when you read the debates about inequality in the farmlands of South Africa, ask, “Where are the women in this?” They’re there, organizing.

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