FARM workers are being paid starvation wages because South Africa’s agricultural sector has long been dependent on cheap and unskilled labour, says a report by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy, a think-tank at the University of Pretoria.
The bureau’s paper on the challenges of determining a sectoral wage for agriculture comes as talks between the Department of Labour, unions, various worker representatives, and organised agriculture began on Tuesday, amid calls for a resumption of strikes in the sector on Wednesday.
Strikes and violent protests took place in the De Doorns area of the Hex River Valley of the Western Cape in November, where striking workers demanded an increase in the minimum wage to R150 a day.
While the report does not necessarily support the wage increase demands, it shows it is impossible for a human to eat properly on these wages alone, even if they were increased.
But the report says farms cannot afford to raise wages to more than R104 a day without introducing greater mechanisation, and although that could mean fewer jobs, strategic development of unused resources could ensure the sector’s viability.
AgriSA has said not every farmer would be able to afford a wage increase to the R150 a day demanded by workers, a stance that has drawn strong criticism from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
Cosatu affiliates have called for the resumption of the Western Cape’s agricultural strikes, while the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry has voiced strong disapproval of such a move.
The report does not presume that workers’ health is not suffering because farmers are supplementing their workers’ diets with rations, or because the workers are receiving government grants.
The Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy is composed of researchers from the University of Pretoria’s department of agricultural economics, extension and rural development, the University of Stellenbosch’s department of agricultural economics and the directorate of agricultural economics at the Western Cape provincial agriculture department.
The bureau’s report says that even if the wages were raised to R150 a day, and even if one family earned two such wage packets, "the money is still not sufficient to feed them properly".
"The real problem is that even at what seems to be an unaffordable minimum wage of R150 per day, most households cannot provide the nutrition that is needed to make them food secure.
"The potential conflict that this creates can be highly disruptive and will have to be managed with circumspection," the report says.
The report also argues that the industry would not be able to pay wages higher than R104 a day without, in general, being forced to restructure in favour of mechanisation, to ensure higher productivity per worker.
The report suggests that while this would translate into higher wages for the few workers who are retained, it could thwart the National Development Plan’s objectives of using agriculture as a labour-intensive strategy for rural development and job creation purposes.
The report concludes that it is becoming clear that the country’s agricultural system "will not survive into the future", because it will soon be characterised by fewer, more skilled and better paid workers.
It says evidence shows that if average wages were to increase by roughly R20 a day, to about R104 a day, many of the typical farms would be unable to cover operating expenses, and so would be unable to repay borrowings or to afford entrepreneurs’ remuneration.
It concludes that South Africa has uncultivated, arable soils suitable for expansion and intensification as well as additional sources of water under efficient water management systems. If these resources were strategically developed, mechanisation would not necessarily be "a threat against manual labour".
"It (mechanisation) should rather be thought of as the opportunity to increase the output delivered per worker and stimulate the agroeconomic sector under a favourable economic and political environment," the bureau said.
It said increases in production could result in building human capital, where agriculture will employ more skilled, well-paid and young workers.
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