Farmworker Housing | by Benjamin Fogel

by Aug 12, 2013Magazine

The housing crisis is not merely confined to the cities and towns of South Africa; it is at the heart of political struggles in rural areas as well. Farmworkers not only face the same types of issues as those who dwell in urban areas, but also face some that are specific to worker-farmer relations in the heart of the country’s fruit and wine producing region. Housing struggles for farmworkers cannot be separated from other struggles related to wages, conditions in the workplace, and a cycle of dependence that has been cultivated over centuries.

In November 2012, the Western Cape region exploded in what has come to be known as the ‘farmworkers’ uprising’, in which some of the most vulnerable and exploited workers in the country downed tools and demanded a new minimum wage of R150 per day. This strike, the largest farmworkers’ strike in South African history, only ended in late January 2013. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Labour announced a new minimum wage of R105 a day for the sector, up from R69.

This good news, however, was quickly tempered by massive retaliatory actions by farmers. According to one of the primary organisations involved in the uprising, CSAAWU (Commercial Stevedores and Agriculture Workers Union):

‘Since the announcement of the unprecedented 52% increase in farm workers’ minimum wage, farmers have undertaken a co-ordinated assault on the livelihoods of farm workers.’

The agricultural sector is notorious for being one the most difficult sectors for unions to organise due to the seasonal nature of employment for many workers, the sheer distance between workers on different farms, and the very nature of the relations between farmers and permanent workers. Most permanent workers live on farms and many are from families who have lived there for generations. Farmers often refer to these workers as being part of an ‘extended family’ despite the starvation wages that are the norm in the sector.

Farmworkers are locked into a relationship in which they are dependent on farmers not only for their accommodation, but for the basic necessities of life – from children’s school clothing to fuel for keeping their homes warm during the winter. While farmers often consider their support for these necessities indicative of their own longstanding charity and generosity, they ignore the fact that workers are dependent on their goodwill in order to survive because wages are far below the cost of reproduction.

Workers’ dependence on farmers for accommodation and ‘charity’ is now being used as a weapon of retribution in the aftermath of the wage increase, just as it was used coercively to discourage workers from taking action before the uprising. The insidious character of the relations between farmers and workers is further underscored by the perpetuation of such abominable practices as the infamous dop system – paying workers with cheap wine instead of money.

Another coercive practice occurs in the form of micro-credit made available to workers through farmers, either through shops run by farmers on their properties or through small loans given to workers to help them make ends meet. These loans lock workers into a perpetual cycle of debt as they are forced to a spend a significant percentage of their monthly earnings on repaying their employer. This is on top of the rent, water, and electricity workers already pay to farmers.

After the uprising, farmers retaliated against workers who participated in the strike and their families by retrenching them, justifying this move by citing the financial ‘burden’ imposed by the new minimum wage of R105 and the workers’ participation in an ‘illegal’ or ‘unprotected’ strike. Of course, it would have been impossible for them to have participated in a ‘protected’ strike, because less than 10% of workers in the sector are unionised.

Farmers then jacked up rents for workers’ accommodation, often by over a 100%, and threatened to evict those who couldn’t pay. Some began to force family members who didn’t work on the farm to pay rent for the first time. Others threatened to evict dismissed workers, claiming they needed to make space for new employees. Many permanent employees have been fired and rehired on a temporary basis, forming part of an increasing casualisation of the farm workforce. For example, over 60 CSAAWU members, many of them women and union leaders, have been dismissed in the aftermath of the strike. Furthermore, most of the retrenched farmworkers have been blacklisted, meaning that other farmers refuse to hire them.

The quality of the farmworkers’ houses is often disguised by a fresh coat of paint or, in some of the farms near Robertson, by solar panels. While these house may appear comfortable, spacious, and environmentally ‘correct’ to a casual passer-by, in fact they often house eight people in two rooms, with no running water. The solar panels, giving the illusion of the farmer’s commitment to defense of the planet, are rarely connected, actually serving as window dressing designed to impress rather than as a source of power. Many of these houses are covered by toxic asbestos roofs.

Farmworkers who don’t live permanently on farms face the same issues as the urban working class in regards to housing. There is a shortage of adequate housing throughout the farmlands of the Western Cape (and the country as a whole). Workers either reside in sub-par RDP housing or in shacks, facing the same service provision issues as their counterparts in urban centers. In fact, in the town of De Doorns, which was the epicenter of the uprising, many of the organisers involved in the strike were originally politicised through housing struggles in the informal settlement of which eventually forced government to provide RDP houses and connect the area to the electricity grid.

The housing crisis cannot simply be viewed as an urban issue. At its core lies the question of land: both the urban and the rural proletariat lack access to land, a result of the historical process of dispossession that began with colonialism, became codified in the 1913 Land Act, and were intensified through the forced removals of the apartheid era. If the housing crisis is ever to be resolved, urban and rural struggles will have to unify into a wider movement capable of challenging capital in its various forms.

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