The family farming organisation Saai and the employers’ organisation National Employers Association of South Africa (Neasa) on 22 April 2021 signed a partnership agreement to bridge labour issues in agriculture and to assist farmers with labour problems, as well as policy influencing. This partnership further means that talks and negotiations with trade unions and the government will take place and that strategic guidance will be given to small and medium businesses and farming enterprises who otherwise have no voice at the National Economic, Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), Business Unity South Africa (Busa) or the Department of Employment and Labour. The partnership gives Neasa a significantly larger footprint in the agricultural industry and offers Saai members direct access to labour advice, assistance and representation on several national labour forums.
Of all forms of administered costs and investment-unfriendly policy premises hampering competition in the agricultural sector, labour issues in social, political and safety terms are the most sensitive and often emotional bones of contention in the public discourse.
Unemployment is a heavy burden hampering an already limping economy and is the major driving force behind poverty and runaway crime statistics. Yet the legal framework and populist policy decisions on critical aspects of employment such as minimum wages, right of residence and the space an employer has to get rid of a problem worker, are making it all but impossible for farmers to make a material contribution to job creation.
Small and medium-sized farmers more often feel themselves being in the firing line of political statements and media allegations claiming that all farmers are exploiters, slave drivers and lawbreakers than they are ever being involved as partners to help create jobs where South Africa needs it most – in the deep rural areas.
And yet agriculture as employer has been performing in fields where no other sector can compete. Farmers employ people who have no other place in the labour market; the most unqualified, most inexperienced and unskilled and most unequipped jobseekers in the rural areas are accommodated on farms.
Millions of people acquire their basic skills for other careers on a farm. There they learn to drive a tractor, then a bakkie and later a truck and eventually they become drivers of heavy vehicles that allow South Africa’s logistical wheels to turn. Employers in agriculture are training people for many other sectors of the economy.
Farmworkers never get rich, but neither do they ever suffer from hunger. Where food production thrives on commercial farms, many more people than just farmworkers, their families and extended families eat from those farms. When they lose their jobs as a result of unaffordable minimum wages or other labour regulations, the government has a dismal record of failure to look after them or to support hungry families.
As employer, the agricultural sector has been performing far above its weight class. Although agriculture contributes only about 2,5% to the gross national product, it creates almost 5% of all employment opportunities directly on farms and a further 12% elsewhere in the value chains.
“Agriculture can create work if it is not hampered by bad policy. Saai and Neasa have already joined forces in our fight against unaffordable minimum wages and with emergency food parcels for hungry communities during the lockdown period, opposing a bargaining council in agriculture and several actions against expropriation without compensation. Formalising the partnership offers Neasa a legitimate presence in agriculture, substantially broadens its reach and sphere of influence, and offers family farmers the most powerful protection, representation and audibility available in the field of agriculture,” says Dr Theo de Jager, Board Chairman of Saai.