Thursday, November 15, 2012

The thorns of De Doorns.

How a labour issue has been hi-jacked by a myriad of motives.

Late on Wednesday night a friend and neighbour came charging on his quad into the driveway of our remote rented farmhouse to warn us to keep the main gate locked and to stay behind bolted security gates and doors.

It was confirmation that Swellendam had become the latest town to fall victim to “labour unrest” that had swept across the Western Cape – surprisingly so, because hours earlier the government had announced that an agreement had been reached to call off the strike. By late Thursday morning it was apparent that this message had also gone unheeded in many other areas, prompting Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson to remark that it had become largely about service delivery. Others are left wondering whether it isn’t the outcome of constant reckless opposition threats to “make the Western Cape ungovernable”.

So what may have started out as labour agitation in the traditional Western Cape hotspot of De Doorns, has gained momentum largely on the back of a myriad of motives, including political, local issues and organised labour manoeuvring. For example, increasing membership in the largely unrepresented agricultural sector will give a significant boost to Cosatu’s waning influence elsewhere.

Western Cape politicians were quick to jump onto the bandwagon with the usual emotive slogans, but none came remotely close to that of Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson herself in praising looters, intimidators and arsonists as heroes and guaranteeing immunity from prosecution. That has certainly set a completely new tone for future labour negotiations. Worse still, it further promotes an easy resorting to public disruption, violence and intimidation on the smallest of pretexts and on the understanding that as long as you make things bad enough, you’ll get away with it.

Swellendam has been the perfect example. Up to Wednesday night, there was no talk among local workers of imminent protests, adding some credence to Agri-SA’s view that volunteers of unemployed and seasonal workers were being bussed to targeted areas.

To show just how dangerous and exploitable this new violent brand of political expression has become, the town now appears to have been held hostage by a few local politicians. Tuesday saw the end of weeks of nothing less than political comedy, when the DA through a court ruling wrested control of the town council back from the ANC. It was going to be my article for this week, but will have to stand over to show that hell hath no fury like a politician scorned.

On the labour front, it has now become clear that if things do settle down, it will be with the undertaking to review the minimum wage in agriculture. This could set off a number of unpredictable and unintended consequences by disturbing employment where it is at its most vulnerable.

Minimum wage employment was, is and always will be a contentious issue for most societies. It is there that free-market fundamentalism and social conscience collide. It is there that the fine dividing line between employment and unemployment can be found. It is the line that for a number of people represents a last resort and a small stepping stone into a semblance of dignity and some form of income – a line between some sustenance and abject poverty and starvation.

As a reflection of social conscience, it mostly has to be enforced by government. So when the beneficiaries of the law take to the streets in spontaneous, unheralded and violent protests it can mean a few things -- the legislators have lost touch with their constituents; they have been unable to manage their expectations; they have irresponsibly inflated these expectations, or have allowed others to do so.

But ultimately the employers, in this case the farmers, have to accept some responsibility for the care and development of their employees. This is basic modern leadership practice and if they are unaware of or indifferent to grievances or do not reduce susceptibility to outside influences, then they have failed themselves, their workers and the industry itself.

Minimum wages are also the line that is vulnerable to opportunism and exploitation – both political and economic – and subject to emotive slogans such as “slave wages” or “wage slaves”. But at the same time, it is a line where employment itself is at its most vulnerable. The fact that it has to be legislated for shows that normal market forces of supply and demand cannot suffice; that the sector involved is very disparate and unstable and that central collective bargaining is difficult, perhaps even counter-productive – all factors that make employment itself insecure.

In South Africa the most exposed line can affect up to 3 million people mostly in agriculture and private households. Together, these sectors make up the biggest employers in the country, and while Agri-Western Cape has argued that nearly 80% of farmers pay their employees above the minimum wage, the sectors include a large number of what is defined as “informal labour”, people who for a number of economic reasons cannot be placed in steady 8-hours per day work with standard benefits such as structured leave, medical aid and pensions.

The agricultural sector alone constitutes nearly 5% of our GDP and employs just under 700-thousand people. Several hundred thousand more can be added in seasonal employment. The up- and down value stream in agriculture pushes the total contribution to GDP to nearly 25% and employment to about 6 million.

The consequence of labour disturbance in agriculture far overshadows that in other sectors in terms of unemployment, inflation, reduced foreign trade, socio-economic disruption, and above all, food security.

There is a poetic ring to De Doorns being the apparent catalyst of recent events. It means “The Thorns” in English – indeed an economic nettle that has to be handled with extreme care without political or economic opportunism and certainly stripped of assumptions and pre-conceptions.

I had many when I first came to this mixed farming area in the Overberg. I was appalled at the conditions in which many worked and lived and most of all by the dismal pay which for many was just above the prescribed minimum. But I soon learned that the trigger that was released at De Doorns is squeezed by many forces, of which pay is only one. Another very serious one is an abysmal lack of productivity attributable to rampant alcoholism; absenteeism and widespread abuse of the social grant system, which ironically will probably spread if minimum wages are increased and push many more above the qualifying threshold.

It’s an industry that for years has relied on sound human and caring relationships, albeit in earlier days somewhat feudal and patronising. It is still an essential ingredient for many traditional farmers, especially the small, privately owned farms. But gestures like extended family housing, regular hand-outs of produce, fetching and carrying to towns, subsidised farm stores, and interest in and help in caring for children are becoming fewer as these relationships become strained with conventional labour posturing.

Agriculture is a highly disparate industry and even employment conditions and pay criteria differ starkly from farm to farm, from product to product, from market to market, from one day to the next. Attempting to peg an important element such as the price of labour (which constitutes up to 40% of overall costs) to a guaranteed level not sustainable by all, particularly small farmers, in a highly volatile, competitive sector can permanently change the structure of the industry.

It is simply inconceivable that this change will not imply a radical reduction in employment.

In years, perhaps decades to come, will this be the legacy of De Doorns?

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