Long hours, extreme weather conditions, low wages, exposure to toxic pesticides, and lack of access to basics such as water or toilets are all part of an arena South African workers toil in to provide fruits and wines for the world, a new report shows.
Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries (pdf), a new 96-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), reveals farmworkers in South Africa earn some of the lowest wages in the entire region, are often denied legal benefits and are subject to insecure land tenure rights, making them and their families at risk of eviction or displacement, and in some cases, from the very land which they were born on.
“The wealth and well-being these workers produce shouldn’t be rooted in human misery,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at HRW, in a news release. “The government, and the industries and farmers themselves, need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms.”
Despite the vital role played by farmworkers in South Africa’s wine, fruit and tourism industry, they enjoy few benefits, due primarily to exploitation and human rights abuses. Although South African law guarantees wages, benefits, and safe housing and working conditions for farmworkers and farm dwellers, by and large the government has failed to monitor these conditions, as well as failed to enforce labor laws.
In one instance, HRW discovered a deplorable housing condition. One farmworker showed the rights group his home, a former pig stall without water or electricity, exposed to the elements. He has lived there with his wife and children for a decade. “It makes me very unhappy,” his wife told HRW, “because I can’t guarantee [the] safety of [my] children and can’t provide for [my] children.”
Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to abuses. With the fear of losing their jobs or facing deportation, they are less likely to complain about working conditions.
In Stofland township, many of the workers and residents are Zimbabweans who work in the local vineyards which produce table grapes for export. They are faced with poor conditions, including limited water supplies and sanitation needs. Xenophobic violence in 2009 forced thousands of them to flee the area.
In some instances, farmworkers are subject to illegal tactics by farmers, such as the cutting of electricity or water. Farm security guards with dogs sometimes harassed families in the middle of the night. In one instance, a family with two children had their electrical supply severed for over a year by farm managers.
Although labor regulations require farmers to supply their workers with drinking water, hand washing facilities and toilets, these are often not provided. Additionally, the report found the majority of former and current farmworkers had been exposed to pesticides without benefit of safety equipment.
“Given what we know about the effects of pesticide use, it is unconscionable that some of these workers are not provided appropriate safety equipment, even after they ask for it,” Bekele added in the statement.
Research for the report was conducted over an eight month period between September 2010 and May 2011. It included field visits to South Africa during November-December 2010 and February-March 2011, totaling nine-and-a-half weeks. More than 260 people were interviewed for the report.
Among those interviewed were current farmworkers, former farmworkers, farm dwellers, and farm owners or farmers’ association representative. Also included in the interview sower trade union representatives, labor brokers, legal service providers, civil society representatives, labor inspectors, politicians and government employees.
The Human Rights Watch report covered 60 farms in the region, 21 which the rights group personally visited.
Fruit and wine are the key exports to South Africa’s Western Cape agriculture community. The province is home to most of the country’s vineyards and hosts six of the nine wine growing regions of South Africa. In 2009, wine exports from the Western Cape totaled around $700 million.