Wanted: A new deal for farmworkers

Farm workers remain a poorly served and largely neglected constituency. A recent report commissioned by the Laborie Dialogue Initiative[1] provides a comprehensive review of the factors influencing provision of housing, services and tenure security for farm workers. The report makes a number of proposals in order to start a conversation about a new deal for farm workers.

The citizens that policy forgot

Back in 1994 the first Housing White Paper acknowledged that farm workers were “effectively excluded” from access to the proposed housing subsidy scheme “as secure tenure is rarely achievable”.  This led the Department to propose possible alternatives. These included measures to delink farm worker housing from the specific farm and to pilot agri-villages in rural hamlets where workers could own their houses. However nothing concrete came of these proposals.

The principle measure which should theoretically be supporting farm workers to access housing and long term security of tenure is contained in Chapter 2 of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA).

Section 4 of the Act states:

  1. ( 1 ) The Minister shall, from moneys appropriated by Parliament for that purpose and subject to the conditions the Minister may prescribe in general or determine in a particular case, grant subsides—

(a) to facilitate the planning and implementation of on-site and off-site developments;

(b) to enable occupiers, former occupiers and other persons who need Iong-term security of tenure to acquire land or rights in land; and

(c) for the development of land occupied, or to be occupied in terms of on-site or off-site developments.

A Policy for the Settlement of Farm Workers in the Western Cape was prepared and gazetted in 2000 to promote the vision that all farm workers “must be able to be settled permanently” and to create “on the farm” and “off the farm” settlement options including agri-villages and agri-suburbs. The policy envisaged “the option of subdividing the farm unit which will facilitate settlement with the accompanying right of ownership”.[2]

The policy envisaged that these settlements would be financed by ESTA Section 4 subsidies. However, most actors agree that ESTA continues to remain largely unimplemented and despite the binding requirement in law to provide subsidies, very few have been awarded in terms of the Act. The inertia over ESTA implementation may date back to a view expressed by the former Minister of Land Affairs Thoko Didiza who was reported as saying that ESTA was “unimplementable”[3].

However municipalities have also expressed deep concerns about the costs of servicing rural settlements, arguing correctly that without proper support these will quickly degenerate into remote poverty traps. Such rural settlements are also actively discouraged in the Housing Code. So while a law has been passed which should enable farm workers to access housing with secure tenure it remains largely unimplemented as different departments and spheres of government cannot agree on a way forward.

In 2009 the Department of Human Settlements introduced Farm Residents Housing Assistance Programme as part the National Housing Code. However it recently acknowledged that not a single subsidy application had been received over the last seven years in terms of this programme and that this unimplemented subsidy policy was still to be evaluated by DHS.

The policy silence on farm workers continues up to the present day. In 2015, more than 20 years after the first Housing White Paper was approved, a new White Paper process got under way. Early drafts had very little to say about farm workers. At a consultation in November 2016 organised by the National Department of Human Settlements to communicate progress on the draft, farm worker housing was not on the agenda.

In fact where farm workers are concerned current housing policy and subsidy programmes are increasingly redundant as the combined income of many farm worker households has risen above the R3500 eligibility threshold. This leaves farmworker households earning above the threshold in the void as it is widely acknowledged that they will find very little through the Finance Linked Individual Subsidy Programme (FLISP) band which is supposed to cater for people with incomes between R3500 – 7000/month.

In addition to housing farm workers also face discrimination with regard to access to free basic services. Many farm workers who live on farm do not receive the free 50 kwh of electricity to which they are entitled.

Housing, services and tenure security remain closely interlinked and this is where there is a major policy conundrum: How do farm workers enjoy the same rights as other citizens? Atkinson has argued that “to the extent that the situation facing farm workers is a rights question it is a question of second generation rights i.e. social and economic rights claimable against the State – not against the employer. This position seeks to frame the farm worker question as a developmental challenge to ensure that “farm workers are recognised as citizens entitled to housing, services, education and health care with a working environment where working conditions are regulated by the State”[4].

Human rights and land sector activists locate the contemporary position of farm workers within histories of land dispossession. They highlight constitutional obligations to secure tenure and progressively enable access to land. They mount strong arguments that the state is failing in its constitutional duties to protect the rights of farm workers and implement the laws required to give effect to Section 25(5) and 25(6) of the Constitution.

Although positions remain deadlocked it appears that the arguments are less about the content of the rights and more about how they can best be realised.

A perfect storm

Overall a combination of economic trends and a persistent policy vacuum can be argued to have created a perfect storm. The three spheres of government appear to be pulling in different directions on the farm worker question. Departments with responsibilities to improve conditions and protect rights on farms lack agreed strategy and common programmes.

Farmers are forced to find ways to cut costs and reduce dependence on labour through casualisation and mechanisation. SARS tax rebates and interest rate discounts offered by the Land Bank incentivising farmers to invest in housing and social services have been withdrawn without any viable alternative being put in place. Increasing numbers of households are being displaced off farms. Once off farm they become the responsibility of already stretched municipalities. Research suggests that significant numbers, if not the majority of farm residents and farm workers, are not registered on the municipal housing demand data base. And even if they are, the waiting list is long.

The consequence is the expansion of poorly serviced informal settlements on the periphery of small towns and mounting concentrations of people living in poverty who are reliant on social grants and precarious seasonal work. Where municipalities provide emergency housing for evicted or displaced farm workers this creates enormous social tensions locally, as residents of the town who have been on waiting lists for years allege ‘queue jumping’.

So what can be done?

The report puts forward a range of recommendations. These include:

  • The strengthening of intergovernmental relations and the meaningful engagement of organised labour, worker formations, agriculture and civil society on matters affecting farm workers.
  • The joint formulation of practical alternatives to overhaul current farm worker housing and services policy, and provide tax rebates and rates relief for investment in on and off-farm housing options which provide long term tenure security.
  • The mandatory inclusion of farmer worker housing and services within the housing chapter of municipal integrated development plans.
  • The piloting of public private partnership options for the provision of off-farm worker housing with secure tenure.
  • The review of ESTA Section 4 provisions and proposed tenure grants in the ESTA Amendment Act as a source of housing finance which could also address suitable alternative accommodation and provision of on-farm retirement housing.

None of these recommendations are likely gain traction without a champion. We require fresh thinking on creative ways to expand agricultural social investment programmes and enable alternative service delivery models. In this regard the report reviews the history of the Rural Foundation (established in the 1980s and disbanded in the late 1990’s) which some analysts regard as contributing to a “golden age of service delivery on farms”.[5]  While acknowledging that the Foundation had its flaws, the report asks whether it is not time to reimagine a 21st century version with substantial industry investment, active union and worker involvement, NGO and state support.  Such an initiative could help generate the energy to break the policy gridlock and to plan and implement practical programmes to help restore the citizenship rights and dignity of farm workers.

Notes

[1] DE SATGE, R. 2017. A review of policy and practice impacting on the provision of farm worker housing, access to services and security of tenure. Report commissioned by the Laborie Dialogue Initiative. Cape Town: Laborie Dialogue Initiative and Phuhlisani NPC.

[2] PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT OF THE WESTERN CAPE 2000. Policy for the settlement of farmworkers.

[3] SOUTH AFRICAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION 2007. Progress made in terms of Land Tenure Security, Safety and Labour Relations in Farming Communities since 2003. Johannesburg: South African Human Rights Commission.

[4] IBID.

[5] ATKINSON, D. 2007. Going for broke: The fate of farmworkers in arid South Africa, Cape Town, HRSC Press.


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