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Farm workers’ struggle for dignified working and living conditions

Farm workers are among the most exploited of labourers in South Africa. Stan Muyebe OP explains the challenges around the precariousness of labour in our strained economy and shines a light on the efforts of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) Justice and Peace Commission to secure basic rights for rural farm workers.

Since the Industrial Revolution and Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, written at the end of the 19th century, the Catholic Church has developed a strong tradition of standing in solidarity with victims of labour exploitation.

In South Africa, farm workers constitute one of the most exploited and neglected categories of the working poor.

The SACBC Justice and Peace Commission has therefore been working with various farm workers’ groups, largely focusing on systemic issues that have sustained labour exploitation in commercial agriculture. This includes weak unionisation of the agricultural sector and weak protection mechanisms for non-unionised workers at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

Responding to the precariousness of labour

Impunity in labour exploitation in commercial agriculture has often been attributed to weak unionisation of the sector. Several factors in the rural labour market have made it difficult for trade unions to organise farm workers.

Farm workers constitute one of the most exploited and neglected categories of the working poor.

Apart from the traditional factors (including the apartheid legacy of the labour tenancy system, the fragmented nature of the rural labour market, and enhanced mechanisation of commercial agriculture), there is a need to pay attention to the global trend of labour precarity and its manifestation in the rural labour market. The International Labour Organisation has recognised the difficulties of responding to the fragile political economy, including labour brokering, contract labour, and casual labour.

In 2018, a civil society organisation called the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO) responded to the labour situation by establishing a forum for non-unionised workers, called the Simunye Workers Forum. Although it has the potential of evolving into a trade union, it has retained its original form, which is similar to that of social movements. This has enabled the forum to respond effectively to labour challenges.

The Justice and Peace Commission has partnered with the CWAO and the Simunye Workers Forum to explore the possibility of expanding the forum to various provinces in the country and to unionised farm workers.

WATCH — SACBC Justice and Peace Commission mediation to secure rights of farm dwellers // SABC Digital News, YouTube

Demanding CCMA reforms

There is also a need to address reforms within the CCMA, including capacity and budgetary constraints, geographical inaccessibility, and inadequate operational policies. All these factors limit the CCMA’s ability to provide adequate protection for farm workers who are not members of trade unions.

One of the operational rules that has been cause for concern is Rule 25 of the CCMA, which makes it difficult for paralegals to support non-unionized workers during CCMA hearings. In 2016, the CWAO challenged this rule in court (CWAO and others vs CCMA).

The court outcome did not provide a radical change on paralegal representation for non-unionised workers. There is talk about challenging the judgment. The SACBC Justice and Peace Commission and several farm worker groups have taken part in this dialogue.

Challenging the national minimum wage

Another systemic issue is the scope of the policy on the national minimum wage. The SACBC Justice and Peace Commission has been accompanying groups of farm workers in Limpopo and Mpumalanga in their policy engagement regarding the national minimum wage. There are several issues that they would like to see addressed.

Farm workers … would like to see the national minimum wage of R3,500 adjusted upwards and upgraded to a living wage.

Firstly, the farm workers are excluded from the ambit of the National Minimum Wage Act. They are seeking inclusion in the Act.

Secondly, like other vulnerable workers, they are concerned with enforcement mechanisms in implementing the national minimum wage. The CCMA and the Department of Labour do not have the capacity to meet the rising demand for enforcement.

Thirdly, the farm workers – together with other vulnerable workers – would like to see the national minimum wage of R3,500 adjusted upwards and upgraded to a living wage that is determined on the cost of the basic standard of living, and not only in terms of wage affordability in the labour market.

Security of tenure

The plight of farm workers is linked to the apartheid legacy of the labour tenancy system. During apartheid, this system was used to ensure access to cheap labour for commercial agriculture. The practise has created the current situation in which thousands of the rural poor are resident on commercial farms without occupational security or a semblance of dignity.

In our constitutional democracy, government and the commercial agriculture sector have not done enough to address the legacy of this system. Government’s policies have failed to prevent the eviction of farm workers and ensure tenure for the rural poor.

There is still a need for a broader policy conversation involving government, the commercial agriculture sector and labour tenants to find a sustainable and comprehensive solution. The High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation, headed by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, provided an opportunity to address the issues.

Government’s policies have failed to prevent the eviction of farm workers and ensure tenure for the rural poor.

In 2017, the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission assisted several groups of farm workers in making submissions to the panel. However, the recommendations of the panel are yet to be implemented.

The dignity of the working poor should still matter

Both during apartheid and our current democracy, economic growth and profit making in commercial agriculture have been built on the back of labour exploitation. There is a need for paradigm shift that considers the primacy of the human person over profit making.

As the nation struggles to grow the economy and create jobs, there is temptation on the part of government and businesses to pursue economic growth at the expense of the rights of vulnerable workers. In this context, one of the tasks the Church has is to ensure that the pursuit of economic growth and investment competitiveness is not dependent on the violation of the rights of the working poor.

Even in a nation that is struggling to woo investors and grow the economy, the dignity of the working poor should still matter.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


  1. Farmers – they are the real backbone of our Planet. They toil and with the sweat of their brow, they keep us alive for the next day. May the farmers and their loved ones be blessed.


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Stan Muyebe OP
Stan Muyebe OP is the Provincial for the Dominican Order in Southern Africa. He directs the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference Justice and Peace Commission. He also serves as an associate researcher both at the University of Pretoria and Domuni University. As a human rights activist and anti-corruption activist, he was involved as a complainant in the State Capture Inquiry which was conducted by Advocate Thuli Madonsela.

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