South African Farmworkers Facing Hunger Two Weeks Into Lockdown!

South African women farm workers – demanding immediate access to benefits to stop starvation

ON April 9th South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the lockdown to disrupt the transmission of Covid-19 in the country would be ‘extended until the end of April.’

But farm workers, especially women farm workers in fact, are already facing a crisis of hunger just two weeks into the lockdown – largely because they have been unable to access two key sources of livelihood support that should have already kicked in, namely unemployment benefits (UIF) and social relief in the form of food parcels.
In fact the last decade in South Africa has seen not only the rapid casualisation and feminisation of agricultural labour, but much-increased job insecurity and precariousness.
In fact after the introduction of the National Minimum Wage (NMW) in 2019, many farmers responded by simply reducing the length of time women were employed during the 2019/20 season.
As a result, many women seasonal workers did not know if, when and for how long they would be employed. The majority of seasonal workers on grape and wine farms in the Western Cape finished their harvesting season in March.
Most will now be without work until the next season starts in October. And their main source of income during the off-season is unemployment benefit – i.e., UIF.
But because all Labour Centres of the Department of Employment and Labour have been closed since the lockdown began on March 27, seasonal workers have been unable to submit and process their UIF applications – the department has not put in place effective alternatives for farm workers to process applications.
So more than 100 women had contacted the Women on Farms Project (WFP) by the first two weeks of lockdown – revealing the impact of the inability to submit applications to receive the UIF benefits which are a statutory entitlement.
Jeanette, a seasonal farm worker from De Doorns, said: ‘During this time, we seasonal workers are dependent on our UIF money. Without our UIF we are going to go hungry, especially me who is a single parent.’
Anna, a farm worker from Rawsonville, added: ‘We haven’t got our UIF, plus many things are more expensive in the shops here in Rawsonville. How are we going to survive? The President must open the Labour Centres. He doesn’t know how we are suffering.’
Gina from Stellenbosch said: ‘Things are really difficult for us seasonal workers. We can’t get our UIF money. What is going to become of us?’
Challenges arising from farm women’s inability to access their UIF entitlements could have been mitigated if they at least had had access to food parcels. Both President Ramaphosa and Premier Winde of the Western Cape had announced an extension to the provision of food parcels.
But farm workers have been unable to access even much-needed food parcels – because the qualifying criteria and assessment mechanisms set out by the Department of Social Development don’t reflect the extraordinarily changed times or the urgency in getting the food parcels to needy families.
For example, criteria include: ‘A person and their household who have insufficient means to sustain themselves during the lockdown period…’ By that criterion alone, all farm workers should automatically be eligible. However, the referral and assessment process is unnecessarily bureaucratic and impractical under the lockdown conditions.
So as Susan from Wellington put it: ‘We heard about the food parcels, but we don’t know how to get them. Everyone here in New Rest is unemployed, so we all need food parcels.’
Magda from Ceres added, ‘Some people asked a ward councillor how we can get the food parcel. But he didn’t know. Please tell President Ramaphosa not to forget the farm workers.’
With the extension of the lockdown, President Ramaphosa had stressed that ‘extraordinary measures’ and ‘exceptional methods’ will be needed.
We call on government to take this opportunity to introduce transformational and structural measures, including land redistribution to farm workers and dwellers.
So in the immediate short-term, the growing food crisis being experienced by women farm workers must be addressed. Farm women are calling on government to:
Making UIF accessible:

  • Immediately reopen Labour Centres, classifying them as an ‘essential service’ in order to process UIF applications. (Obviously, all social distancing and hygiene protocols should be adhered to.)
  • Introduce mobile Labour Centres to travel around farming areas to process UIF applications. (Public transport restrictions make travel from farms to towns difficult.)
  • Introduce a free call or data free phone or WhatsApp service for the processing of UIF applications.
  • Ensure that UIF payments are made within three working days.

Social relief:

  • Minimise the bureaucratic red tape of the vetting and assessment process so that farm workers are able to receive food parcels expeditiously. For example, use mobile Department for Social Development (DSD) buses which can travel around farming areas and undertake immediate assessments, ensuring that food parcels reach households within three working days.
  • With current criteria already targeting households with ‘insufficient means to sustain themselves during the lockdown period’, simply provide food parcels to all farm workers and dwellers.
  • Using South African Social Security Agency (SASSA)’s existing database of social grant beneficiaries, simply double the amount of all social grants for the duration of the lockdown.

In fact: take the ‘extraordinary measure’ and introduce a Basic Income Grant or Social Wage, which would not only include all farm workers, but the rest of the 10 million unemployed South Africans, the 25% of South Africans who already experience hunger, and the 50% of South African adults living in poverty.
Covid-19 has exposed South Africa’s inequalities in wealth, healthcare, housing, water and sanitation, but surely the most perverse is the fact that women farm workers, the producers of our food, do not have enough food to feed their families.

  • Meanwhile the South African Municipal Workers’ on April 10 said that its members and municipal workers did not support President Ramaphosa’s call for salary cuts.

The president had said a day earlier that he, together with his deputy David Mabuza, ministers and their deputies, would be taking a salary cut of 33% for three months. The salary cut followed the extension of the national lockdown by a further 14 days to the end of April – as the government tightened the belt against the spread of the coronavirus.
Samwu has distanced itself from the salary cut measure announced by Ramaphosa following the shutdown extension of 14 days. (The first lockdown period of 21 days was expected to end on 16 April following its implementation on 26 March.)
Samwu’s statement said that: ‘Our members and municipal workers in general would not be participating in this salary cut challenge. We further place it on record that there are no discussions between unions and the city on workers participating in this challenge.
‘If anything, the statement by the president seeks not only to demoralise the municipal workers but also to drive a wedge between the union and its members.
‘Municipal workers are at the bottom of the food chain, they simply do not have money laying around unlike politicians. We will therefore leave this challenge to politicians as we are not prepared and will not subsidise operations of employers,’ said Koena Ramotlou, Samwu’s general secretary.
He stressed: ‘The union does sympathise and see the need for more resources to be channelled towards the coronavirus prevention measures. Such responses cannot be done at the expense of pickpocketing municipal workers on their hard-earned money, money which is not even enough to cover their basic needs as they are not paid decent wages.
‘We therefore urge all the 254 municipalities and their entities in the country to not even dare and include municipal workers as participants in this challenge of theirs,’ said Ramotlou.
He has warned the municipalities against enforcement of the salary cut on its affiliate members. ‘Forcing municipal workers to take a salary cut would be a declaration of war, a war that municipal workers are prepared and well-oiled to fight to the bitter end.
‘We therefore expect municipalities to pay workers their salaries in full, including their benefits in line with their conditions of service,’ said Ramotlou.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions has also indicated it is unhappy with the development, its statement said, ‘to condemn panic imposed by Impala mine in Rustenburg by calling workers back to work during the #Covid19 lockdown.’
And large numbers of people have also been voicing their concerns over operations restarting during the lockdown to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).