The wages of … whatever

With the announcement of the new minimum wages for farmworkers, their recent struggles can be seen, I suppose, to have been substantially succesful. Although if, as widely threatened, job-losses are a result, the victory will be rendered even more ambiguous.

1-handssoilInevitably, there must remain a lot of bitterness on both sides and let’s hope that something a little more humane will eventually grow from what has been a painful experience all round. To the extent that farmers actually see and admit the legitimacy of farmworker protests against their generally deplorable living standards, I actually think it was emotionally particularly difficult for them. The workers, after all, knew what they were striving after; it was a straightforward fight for themselves and their children.

Many of the farmers, on the other hand, were to an extent being fundamentally challenged at a deep level – the level at which (it seems to me) they have somehow felt and thought that farming was really only about themselves and their quasi-mystical relationship to the land. Within that conception, they seem to easily, unquestioningly think of  farmworkers as basically contented with their lot. Unfortunately, I have my doubts about how many landowners allowed their myths to be challenged.

(Possibly the most interesting, and depressing, set of thoughtful statistics and considerations that emerging over the past months was the study suggesting that farmworkers simply cannot survive decently on existing wages, while most farmers cannot afford to pay decent wages. A horrible knot, indicating that there is something fundamentally wrong with “the system”, a situation to which everyone must respond differently, in ways largely depending on their politics.)

1vineyardEveryone talks about the bad economic times that prevail. There have been good times for the wine (and fruit) industry of the Western Cape since 1994, and it would be difficult for anyone to argue that those good times led to a great deal of advancement in worker conditions. Not much, really, has changed for workers since 1994 and all its promised liberation.

The most significant thing that changed for them was when the new national government brought agricultural labourers (and domestic workers) under the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, thereby hopefully ensuring the bare minimum of labour standards. Incidentally, there are now people decrying the lack of linkage between farmers and government – let’s not forget the pre-1994 situation when there was a very cosy relationship indeed between government and farmers. It led to the exclusion of farmworkers from those legislated minimal conditions.

To return to my hopeful thought: just perhaps, this might even prove a bit of a useful jolt to everyone. A wake-up call, some would say.

But, then there’s depressing reality. Take a newsletter received today from Oak Valley winery, signed by Christopher Rawbone-Viljoen, son of the owner of the huge Elgin property, not long since returned from his postgraduate education in “wine business” in Australia. (The newsletter is available here).

Of course, the newsletter is honestly upfront in saying that it offers a “farmer’s perspective”. Fair enough. What is distressing is that among all the newsletter’s self-righteousness and accusations there is not the slightest shred of acknowledgement that most farmworkers in the wine industry – let alone any other agricultural industry – have a hard time. Not even a brief mention of sympathy for people who have been earning less per day than the cheapest Oak Valley wine costs per bottle. And, of course, photos of burning rather than of ragged children. Fair enough, it’s a farmer’s perspective.

So we get a bit of reasoned argument about the general situation and about affordability, coupled with the usual farmer hysteria about this being a political strike. I have seen so much reference to things like Mr R-V’s allegation about “ANC sponsored troublemakers bussed in from Cape Town” without any evidence whatsover that the author is actually in a position to confidently make the allegations. Where’s any evidence beyond prejudice and prejudiced imagination as to who “sponsored” the supposed bus-travellers? (Quite apart from explaining why they shouldn’t offer their support). Is it correct to speak of them as “troublemakers” as opposed to – for example – potential temporary workers, or sympathisers (family friends, political supporters). As to being “bussed in” – unlike farmers, let’s remember for a moment, these are not people who can jump into their own 4X4s to go where they think they are needed. Farmers and their spokespeople too often show contempt for their workers by imagining that they are the dupes of some or other political force (which is a very different thing from observing political forces coming into  a situation to attempt to exploit it).

It is clear that, by all accepted standards, Oak Valley is an exemplary employer. And a very rare one, sadly.

One last thought on the whole business. There have recently been reminders that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world when it comes to income distribution – the “GINI coefficient” shows that only Brazil can compete with us for this dubious distinction.

I won’t wonder what salary (and housing benefits, etc) is earned by young Christopher Rawbone-Viljoen, son of a rich farmer and not much troubled to find a job, compared with his comparatively well-paid workers. But it’s something to be borne in mind when some enterprises complain about the unaffordability of wage increases. It’s not written in the stars that a winemaker or manager at a winery should earn, say, a hundred or fifty times what a vineyard labourer earns and also have a holiday house at Elands Bay. It really isn’t. It comes back, I suppose, to questions about systems, and politics, and choices.

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