There are unlikely to be many vineyard and winery workers joining in today’s national strike called by Cosatu to protest at labour brokers (and Gauteng’s proposed toll roads). This despite the fact that the use of labour brokers in the wine industry seems to have greatly increased in recent years – particularly since the extension of full labour rights to farmworkers since 1994.
But, except at the biggest facilities, farmworkers are little unionised, are often isolated, and particularly vulnerable to employer reprisal.
This is how Human Rights Watch objectively described the role of labour brokers in its 2011 report on conditions in the Western Cape’s wine and fruit industries:
“A number of farmers turn to labor brokers to supply or manage workers, particularly seasonal workers. These brokers can range from individuals-often former farmworkers themselves-whose sole job is to supply laborers, to companies that provide workers along with management services, equipment, and transportation. Under Sectoral Determination 13 brokers are considered the employer of farmworkers that they procure. Labor brokers, who often enter into seasonal or multi-year contracts with farmers, typically are responsible for paying the workers that they have supplied; depending on the contract, they sometimes supervise their workers in the field as well.’
There is no doubt that many farmers turn to brokers simply to provide expert seasonal services for which they have not enough workers themselves (or – more problematically – for which their workers are insufficiently trained). Often it’s cheaper and much easier to outsource, at some cost to employment. Some famers use brokers in order to push the responsibility for bad employment conditions onto others.
Many labour brokers comply with laws and regulations about employment conditions. Some undoubtedly do not, and thereby deepen conditions of exploitation – this is part of the reason why Cosatu is determined that the practice should be banned (something that would be very problematical for seasonal work on smaller properties, depending on how labour broking is defined).
It is surely impossible not to agree that, at least, labour broking should be extremely tightly monitored. But one of the things that the Human Rights Watch report made very clear is that the national and provincial governments have failed miserably in this oversight duty.
The report did not go into as much detail on the issue of brokers as it arguably should have, but it did say this:
“Although some labor brokers may be complying fully with labor legislation, other brokers, particularly those who are unregistered, employ workers without giving them all the benefits to which they are entitled. For example, Gerald G., an unregistered labor broker who supplies seasonal labor, said that he never gives contracts or safety equipment to his farmworkers; he was not worried about the Department of Labour learning of his practices, however, ‘because I have friends at the Department and they know what I do.'”
Incidentally, I am a part-time employee at the University of Cape Town, and a fully paid-up, but hardly active, member of Nehawu (the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union); I am observing Cosatu’s strike call today in support of their demands regarding labour brokers.