Each afternoon in the sunset lorry upon lorry brings tired farm workers to the group of workmen’s huts called Stofland – “dust land” in English. The workers stand on the flatbed, some dozens on each lorry. Stiff and sore from 10-12 hours out on the grape fields, they crawl down from the flatbed and amble over to the small tin shacks that house the approximately 3000 farm labourers in Stofland, outside the town of De Doorns.
In Norwegian shops you can find grapes in small plastic boxes labelled “Country of Origin: South Africa”. These grapes originate from, among other places, De Doorns. Both Bama, the largest supplier of fruit in Norway, and Coop confirm to The Future in Our Hands that they import grapes from the town that ranks second in grape production in South Africa.
During the harvest more than 200 farms in De Doorns hire thousands of seasonal labourers. A large number of these seasonal labourers come from the neighbouring countries of Zimbabwe and Lesotho. They are greatly in demand by the farm owners during the harvest but unwanted when the season is over.
Labourers with whom The Future in Our Hands have talked say that they work for 60 Rand a day, work for at least 10 hours daily and only have contracts for 4 months. Working days of up to 12 hours have also been reported, and extra work on Saturdays.
Sandra and Sidney are neighbours in Stofland. Both are from Zimbabwe and have work contracts up to the harvest for only 4 months.
“We are farm workers,” Sidney says. “We maintain the grape fields and spread fertiliser and compost.”
The wage is 60 rand a day. This constitutes a monthly wage of about 1300 Rand, which corresponds to a legally established minimum wage for farm labourers but is nevertheless not enough to live a decent life. The agricultural wages in South Africa are so low that few manage to work their way out of poverty.
“We receive no protective clothing; only those who are permanently employed do,” Sidney says. “Shoes only last a month; then they are worn out,” Sandra explains. They do not have footwear that is suitable for agricultural work.
Sidney says he can not afford to save or to return home. Neither Sandra nor Sidney has any concrete plan as to what they will do when the harvest is done and the contract expires. The last time Sandra called home to her children in Zimbabwe, they preferred that she send money for food rather than she come home herself. If she were to return home, they would all starve.
Move from Season to Season
Sandra and Sidney live in tin shacks a few square metres in size which they share with their spouses. Both families rent from their neighbour Thembikile, a South African who is also a seasonal labourer in De Doorns. Many of the South African seasonal labourers return to their villages in Eastern Cape when the harvest season is over, something the Zimbabweans can not afford to do. Others do like Thembikile and move on to other areas where seasonal labourers are needed.
“I work with grapes in De Doorns for 4-5 months. From June to August I work in Citrus Valley and pick oranges. That’s how we live here”.
Seventeen million cases of grapes are harvested in the area around De Doorns between January and April every year. The valley around is covered by a gleaming green carpet of grapevines. Poverty-stricken Stofland lies in a mound of rocks on the other side of the motorway, some distance away from the green grape fields.
Import Growth in Norway
Norwegian wholesalers imported grapes to the tune of NOK 167 million from South Africa in 2011, according to Statistics Norway. The import from South Africa has increased in both volume and value during the past 10 years. Today South Africa holds seventh place as importer of fruit and vegetables to Norway. The agricultural sector in South Africa is growing, but the farm labourers are among the poorest paid in the country. The minimum wage of 1375 Rand in 2011 is fixed by the authorities. But with an abundance of labourers, the minimum wage also becomes a wage ceiling which the labourers seldom manage to raise or get above.
An employee in the farm owners’ own special interest organisation, Agri Wes-Cape, was in a report confronted with the fact that some farm labourers wanted a higher wage. Her spontaneous reaction was, “How can they demand more money when they already receive more than the minimum wage?” Only 3% of the farm labourers in South Africa are unionised, and it does not improve matters that unions for agriculture both are weak and lack political influence. Hardly any of the seasonal labourers are unionised.
“No Alternative for the Labourers”
Owen Maromo is one of the farm labourers who have lived a long time in De Doorns and is well familiar with the situation. Up until 2008 he was a politician for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe but had to escape from the violence during the election that year. Now he works with irrigation and is one of the few with a steady job in grape production.
“Most people here work under extremely hard working conditions. They work long days and are underpaid – because they have no alternative,” Owen explained.
“In this industry there are many foreigners. The farm owners profit greatly from the immigrants. When I came here 3 years ago, the production was low, but it has shot up. The foreigners, especially from Zimbabwe and Lesotho, contribute greatly to the production here.
Chased from Their Homes
The foreigners in De Doorns are not equally popular with everyone. In 2009 Owen was witness to seven Zimbabweans being burned to death in Stofland. It was said that the murders were due to a quarrel about a woman. Later that year the hatred flared up seriously. Local South Africans believed that they lost in the competition for jobs with the underpaid and hard-working migrant workers. In the course of one day in November, 3000 labourers from Zimbabwe and Lesotho were chased out of Stofland. What they did not manage to bring along in the rush was stolen. Voluntary organisations and the UN came from Cape Town and set up a camp for the victims on a sports field. The local farm owners contributed help so long as the harvest lasted but then asked the victims to leave.
“One could almost call them blood grapes. Many people suffer when they culture these grapes. No one who works in the grape fields likes this job; they work under difficult conditions,” Owen Maromo stated. “If I myself bought these grapes and knew about the conditions for those who cultivate them, I would not enjoy the grapes.”
But if we comply with Owen’s request not to eat the grapes he cultivates, he and the labourers will lose their jobs and wages. During the past 10 years the value of grapes imported from South Africa to Norway has increased constantly and contributed to work for Owen, Sandra and Sidney and thousands of others. The great challenge is how the increase in agricultural exports is to benefit the labourers.