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Words by Mologadi Makwela

Farm workers attending the Future of Farmworkers conference, currently underway at the University of the Western Cape, were very vocal about their dissatisfaction with the minimum wage of R18 per hour for their labour that came into effect on January 1 this year.

While the wage agreement was seen as a triumph by some politicians and commentators, for the workers on the farms it remains a contentious issue.

Speaking to delegates yesterday, Neil Coleman, co-director of the Institute for Economic Justice, admitted that the hourly wage was “a bit of a curveball” because the labour movement had been pushing for a monthly minimum wage. But, he said, it was estimated that at least 500 000 farmworkers were better off because they had been earning less than R18 an hour at the time the minimum was introduced.

“The gap between the average earnings of farm workers and managers is second only to the wage gap in the energy sector,” Coleman said.

“The sector is characterised by deep and extensive poverty,” he said. “Even though there was a 52% rise in minimum wages after the 2012-13 farmworkers’ strikes, we estimate that 90% of farm worker families are still living below the poverty line.”

At the time of the negotiations, a strong lobby from the farmers claimed that a minimum wage would result in job losses, but there is no evidence of a significant impact on employment. Coleman also pointed out that very few farmers have applied for exemptions from the increase.

Key issues still to be examined were whether the national minimum has been enforced and whether higher paid workers have been laid off to make way for those earning the mandated minimum.

Coleman admitted that the choice to group farm workers and domestic workers together in the minimum wage negotiations was “a tactical decision” and that the agreement to R18 an hour was a medium term target. The hoped-for result is a much more rapid rise to a minimum of R20 per hour by 2020, but, according to Coleman, the trade unions are worryingly quiet about what is going to happen next year.

In response, a farm worker spokesperson pointed out that the trade unions are largely irrelevant in their sector.

“Where would we get money to pay the unions?” she demanded.

The situation is exacerbated by the increase in seasonal, as opposed to permanent farm jobs and the fact that most farm workers no longer live on the farms where they work.

“When we lived on the farms we had land. We could grow our own vegetables and keep animals. Now we have nothing,” said one delegate. “Enough is enough! Nothing has improved – where are my opportunities? Where are my rights?

“Where is my land?”