Agri SA slams human rights abuse accusations
The 'Ripe with Abuse' report used qualitative research based on surveys with 260 people including farmworkers, farm owners, civil society members, industry representatives, government officials, lawyers, union officials, and academic experts, pointing to cases of poor housing and pesticide exposure.
"The wealth and well-being these workers produce shouldn’t be rooted in human misery," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government, and the industries and farmers themselves, need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms.”
Agri SA president Johannes Möller says his organization rejects the claims in the report.
"Agri SA rejects the Human Rights Watch report on "Human Rights Conditions in South Africa's Fruit and Wine Industries" as being one-sided, malicious, unfair and highly irresponsible. Agri SA questions the research methodology and therefore the credibility of the relevant findings," he says.
"It is a potential dangerous situation for agriculture if perceptions are created by the outcomes of impaired research on which policy decisions could be based. Agri SA would therefore welcome objective and authoritative research into the labour conditions on farms as well as into the drivers of certain trends. For this reason Agri SA is consulting with the International Labour Organisation as independent body to facilitate such research.
"Of these (260 respondents), 85 were apparently farm workers, 32 former farm workers and 16 were farm dwellers. How can such a small, and probably carefully selected sample ever be used to describe the situation of 121 000 farm workers?"
Agri SA highlighted that all deciduous fruit export farms, which were the focus of the report, complied with GLOBALG.A.P (good agricultural practice) programs.
"It is therefore highly unlikely that the allegations as contained in the report could be a true reflection of prevailing circumstances on farms in the Western Cape," the organisation said in a release.
The report's findings
The HRW report said many workers did not live in 'adequate housing' but not all on-farm accomodation was in poor condition.
"Farmworkers who live on farms, as well as other farm dwellers, are often relegated to substandard, unsafe housing that lacks adequate sanitation and fails to provide protection from the elements or other threats to health. In the most extreme cases, farmworkers live in places not designed to shelter humans," the report said.
"For their part, farm owners generally do not want to build new houses for workers aside from what currently exists. Some farmers also believe that there is no incentive to maintain houses in good condition, particularly when the person living in the house is not a current worker.
"Not all on-farm housing is poor. Some permanent farmworkers said they lived in decent houses with no complaints, and on some farms Human Rights Watch saw workers’ houses that were kept in good condition with glass windows, electricity, running water, and toilets."
Some of the worst cases involved workers crowded in shipping containers for years, which often leaked when it rained, leading to suspected cases of asthma and tuberculosis. There were also reports of farm employees living in former pigsties and high incidences of eviction problems. The report also gave a damning assessment of pesticide conditions and access to drinking water.
"Farmers often fail to provide the proper safety equipment or take other steps to mitigate farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides, sometimes explicitly denying farmworkers’ requests for safer conditions.
"The majority of farmers do not provide toilets or drinking water near the fields, particularly on farms that do not export."
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Photo: Marcus Bleasdale, HRW