Sunday, March 11, 2012

Labour brokers and ripe peaches.

It’s been very, very hot here in the Overberg these last few weeks, with temperatures soaring to past the mid 30’s. In the peach orchards, extreme humidity destroys any relief to be had in the shade of fully leafed branches bending under the strain of rapidly ripening fruit.

As I drive past this picture of bounty, I see people, ladders and crates between the rows and I am heartened by the efforts that will soon ensure luscious Kakamas peaches reaching the shelves of retailers here, but mostly in Europe, China and the United States. But then comes the flipside: for I am reminded of the cotton picking scenes of Steinbeck’s immortal “Grapes of Wrath” in which wage slaves toil in unbearable heat for little more than a loaf of bread a day.

Here too, in the sweltering heat and humidity, they work without pause from dawn to dusk. Some come from communities several kilometres away finding temporary residence with family, friends, acquaintances, or even makeshift shelters on the outskirts of local townships. Some are “aliens”, including Zimbabweans, who are generally preferred as part of the fruit-picking crews. For most, it is the first opportunity in a while to earn some money and augment meagre incomes needed to support themselves and their families.

Some pick slowly and indiscriminately. It is a behaviour that may be encouraged by a harvesting contract based on a set fee per day. But strangely, that behaviour seldom changes even when they are paid per basket or crate of suitable fruit. There are a handful of mostly locals who look down on the more energetic and sometimes intimidate them into picking less to ensure that their own lethargy is not revealed. For them, the few days’ income is simply a means to binge on cheap wine. Their lives are paths of exuberant intoxication interspersed with periods of melancholic abstinence, reluctant effort and debilitating withdrawal.

There are whole communities here that are dysfunctional – perhaps “barely functional drunks” would be a better description. It is a throwback, they say, to the “dop-stelsel” (tot-system) where a generation or so ago, many of the wine and fruit farm workers in the Western Cape would receive a daily ration of wine as part of their pay. Some are born addicted, or with foetal alcohol syndrome. They may march for permanent work, but it is the last thing they really want. Being from the Western Cape, Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich should know this better than most, and is being just a little short of mischievous in his call for the abolition of labour brokers that hold the seasonal work system together.

But even amongst the functional drunks, there are many who go about their work with a sense of urgency, understanding that no ripe fruit should be left on the trees because the heat will cause them to pass their “pick-by” hour very quickly. A few hours delay in harvesting fruit that is ready, can lead to tons of losses, making or breaking the solvency of the whole crop. So they toil tirelessly in the blazing heat and oppressive humidity and prove that even in such a group, workers can be involved beyond pay itself and can focus on the contribution they are making…albeit only for a few days and the prospect of bliss in a bottle.

One peach farmer here faced discarding tons of his harvest when the bulk was ripe for picking and on the day, no “outworkers” (contract labourers) pitched. After some frantic calls, he discovered that the group that had worked in the orchard the week before were not paid by the broker and refused to return to work. After more frantic calls he managed to put a crew together, but many of the original crew were left with nothing to show for their several days of work in scorching heat.

This farmer is as disgusted with the labour broker system as the out of pocket labourers are. Brokers are contracted in two ways. In one they negotiate the harvesting, sorting and packing of a crop, pay the crew out of that fee, and then keep the remaining profit for themselves. In the other the farmer pays either the broker or the workers directly, a minimum fee (depending on the farmer involved) of R60 a day each, and a fee of about R90 a day for the broker. This is above the legally prescribed minimum wage for farm workers, and as paltry as it may appear, barely affordable by the dozens of small privately owned farms in this area.

At completely the other end of the scale, this same farmer was approached by one of the contract workers who wanted to know where he could sign up for the “permanent position” that the farm was obliged to create after Wednesday’s Cosatu marches.

The above cameo may strengthen emotions against the labour broker system. While it is useful always to go from the general to the specific, from theory to the practical, it can also disguise complexities and other realities. For one thing, only a very small percentage of labour brokers misbehave in the way our villain broker did and no doubt he will be dealt with legally. Both employers and employees in this community are not happy with the broking system even when it works like it should. It is messy, not conducive to sound industrial relations and a threat to farm security. But there simply is no other way of handling seasonal farming work.

Labour broking is at the cutting edge of the real issue which is labour flexibility. It is seen by organised labour as the last bastion of resistance to labour rights and the emotional, politically charged call for its abandonment ignores many of the realities that keep it in place. Business has estimated that some 1 million jobs would be lost if labour brokers were to be banned. Labour expert, Andrew Levy has told the e-News Channel that current labour laws and the intended further regulation of labour brokers are sufficient to prevent abuse of the system.

If Cosatu were to have its way on labour brokers, it would be further proof of how, in wallowing in populist rhetoric and political manoeuvring, it is prepared to sacrifice practical solutions to the real problems of unemployment, poverty and income disparities.

But there’s no chance that the broking system will be scrapped and Cosatu will have to rest with at best (for them) more stringent regulation. One can only hope that the discussion itself will come back to the issue of labour rigidities which many, including this writer, have argued over a number of years, are the main force behind unemployment. The latest independent IMF study quoted by Felicity Duncan gives scientific credence to that view. A coherent, practical and thoroughly researched national discussion on labour inflexibility and the effect on unemployment is long overdue, a point supported by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Cosatu has always been politically very astute and one cannot ignore tri-partite muscle flexing ahead of important ANC party policy meetings and electioneering as playing some role in the marches this past week. Embattled consumers, the semi-employed and unemployed were clearly attracted to the causes that were being championed. But probably much more so by the very real global issues of unemployment, poverty and income disparities.

Zwelinzima Vavi was quick to exploit these dimensions by using the slogan “economic apartheid” and referring to the event as “Occupy Johannesburg”. As a play on the global “Occupy Wall Street” movement it certainly broadened the message to cover the issues just mentioned.

But one wonders what significant contribution, if any would be made to these problems if Cosatu had its way with toll roads and labour brokers.

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