Inhumane conditions for workers on S.African wine farms: HRW

23rd August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Workers on South Africa's renowned wine and fruit farms face unfit housing, exposure to pesticides and are blocked from forming labour unions, a new study said Tuesday.

The 96-page Human Rights Watch (HRW) report said farmworker wages were among the lowest in South Africa despite the two industries contributing billions of rand to the economy, aiding tourism and exporting products around the world.

"The wealth and well-being these workers produce shouldn't be rooted in human misery," said Daniel Bekele, the organisation's Africa director.

"The government, and the industries and farmers themselves, need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms."

HRW accused the government of failing to monitor worker conditions and enforce labour laws. and said the system used to identify violations of workers' rights was weakened by labour inspectors who gave farmers notice before site visits.

It also said some worker housing was uninhabitable and that workers were vulnerable to evictions despite protective legislation since 1997, with civil society groups estimating 930,000 expulsions between 1994 and 2004.

"One farmworker showed Human Rights Watch the former pig stall without electricity, water or protection from the elements where he has lived with his wife and children for 10 years," the group said in a statement.

Health and safety was also a problem, with the majority of workers not protected from pesticide exposure, many denied access to drinking water, toilets or places to wash hands, and paid sick leave almost always refused without a medical certificate.

Trade union representation was as low as three percent on Western Cape farms, as compared to 30 percent in formal labour nationwide.

The research was carried out in March, with more than 260 interviews ranging from farmworkers and owners to academics.

HRW said conditions varied on farms and not all workers had faced rights abuses, with a small number of positive cases cited that included employers handing workers land to grow crops.

"The answer is not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers," said Bekele.

"But we are asking retailers to press their suppliers to ensure that there are decent conditions on the farms that produce the products they buy and sell to their customers."

© 2011 AFP

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