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Opinion: Agriculture New Security of Tenure Bill is a Grim Harvest for Farmers

Note from Farmworkers’ Forum: This opinion piece is from Viola Manuel, CEO of the Cape Chamber of Commerce in South Africa. It is interesting to read about a different country, a different culture trying to balance the rights of farm employers with rights of the farmworkers. If you would like to see additional posts about the lives, rights, working conditions, and other issues related to farmworkers in non-U.S. countries, use the Leave a Reply form or Contact the Forum.

From BusinessDay.co.za, “VIOLA MANUEL: Agriculture New security of tenure bill is a grim harvest for farmers” by Viola Manuel, 29 Mar 2011.

[South Africa]–BUSINESS should be very concerned about the Land Tenure Security Bill, which was published on December 24 last year, because it could have a far- reaching effect on the economy, particularly in the Western Cape with its labour-intensive fruit and wine industries.

The main thrust of the bill enhances the security of tenure of farm workers who live on farms and the fear is that this will make it much more difficult, expensive and time- consuming to evict workers even if there is good reason to do so. And, to further complicate matters, family members of workers have also been given enhanced security .

Legal experts say the lengthy procedures and multiple notice periods required in terms of the bill mean that years could pass before a successful eviction can take place.

Business is concerned because agriculture is such a fundamental part of the economy that the knock-on effects will be felt in a whole range of companies that provide services and products to farmers — from machinery and chemicals to packaging and marketing. If agriculture declines in the Western Cape, business declines.

The view of organised agriculture is that the bill weakens the position of the landowner while it gives more power to workers. This tilts the balance of power in favour of the workers and they say it will make farmers reluctant to employ more staff.

In fact, this has already happened. The policy document that accompanied the draft bill admits that existing legislation “has made farmers apprehensive about employing permanent workers and about providing accommodation for workers on their farms”.

Organised agriculture says that this is one of the results of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act of 1996 and a host of other labour laws and minimum wage legislation. All this prompted farmers to adopt a policy of not replacing staff who, resigned, retired or died, and the new legislation, they say, will worsen the situation. There will be more mechanisation and farmers are already planting crops and pruning trees in ways that will make mechanical harvesting easier.

Among the reasons given in the policy paper for the failure of the 1996 act to stem what it calls “a tide of evictions” is “the lack of an effective implementation framework, including limited state enforcement capacity” and “the failure to publicise the legislation”.

Gordon Metter, deputy president of the Cape Chamber of Commerce, and a businessman who has provided extensive services to the agricultural sector in his long career, said there was an unfortunate pattern of producing stricter legislation when the real problem was that existing legislation had not been enforced. If the legislation had been properly implemented, many of the problems the new legislation seeks to remedy might not exist.

There is also great concern about the vagueness in the bill. The word “farm” is not defined. In modern agriculture, a farm can be anything from a few hectares under strawberries, or growing tunnels, to the traditional stock or crop farm. Some poultry farms use the battery system and are more like factories than the traditional farm, while game farms have no domestic animals or crops.

The bill gives farm workers the right to run their own livestock, the right to graze them on the farmer’s land, the right to plant crops and build homesteads. Other rights are to bury family members on the farm and the right to clean water and electricity.

“These rights bring with them a whole range of problems,” says Metter. “They might work on large traditional farms but it is difficult to see how they could be applied on the modern, intensive farm. Bringing stock on to farms can introduce disease and who would then be liable for the damage? How will the landowner supply electricity if he is not connected to Eskom? Will workers (get) power from his wind turbine or solar panels?

“Even more serious is the question of payment for services or electricity. The bill stipulates a farm resident should not damage the farmer’s property but there is no mention of an obligation to pay for electricity or any other service made available.”

More surprising is the worker’s “right to do commercial farming”. What does this mean? Will the worker be able to grow crops on the farmer’s land, use his water and electricity and sell the produce in competition with him on the local market? By providing free land and services the farmer would be subsidising his competitor.

These rights extend to the family of workers but the term “family” is not defined. Michael Bagraim, president of the Cape Chamber, says this is an alarming situation. “In this country a worker could have many wives and a dozen children. Does ‘family’ include stepchildren, grandparents or cousins? Must the farmer provide land and free electricity for all of them?”

There would be serious economic consequences if the bill became law. There would be a reluctance to invest in the agricultural industry because the burden and responsibilities of ownership would make it very difficult to farm profitably.

Workers would have so much say over what happened on the farm and their bargaining position would be so strong that the management of the enterprise would be undermined. Bagraim said there was already a trend among buyers to insist on taking vacant occupation of the land. This usually meant the seller had to make arrangements for the old staff to live elsewhere and this could be very expensive, while it added to the numbers of the unemployed.

“Perhaps the worst thing about this proposed legislation is that it will make it virtually impossible for the formerly disadvantaged to become farmers. New black farmers will find that the burdens, responsibilities and restrictions will make successful farming all but impossible.

“When one factors in the onerous requirements of the proposed new labour legislation, farming will become uneconomic and we could have a situation where the only people who continue farming will be those who cannot sell their farms,” said Bagraim.

The inevitable result is that our farms will look more like their European or American equivalents in future. They will be highly mechanised and there will be little place for unskilled workers. Farm workers will drift to the cities in search of a new life and they will find that they are not equipped to take their place in an increasingly industrial world.

The unintended social and economic consequences of the legislation will far outweigh any good that it will do.

It is clear that the legislation diminishes the property rights of farm owners and if the bill becomes law it is certain to be challenged in the Constitutional Court. That will be a long and expensive case and it will create a climate of uncertainty, making investment decisions all but impossible.

Would any bank be prepared to lend money to a new or existing farming business before there is clarity on what a farmer may or may not do on his own land?

– Viola Manuel is CEO of the Cape Chamber of Commerce.

Read at: BusinessDay.co.za, “VIOLA MANUEL: Agriculture New security of tenure bill is a grim harvest for farmers” by Viola Manuel, 29 Mar 2011.

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