Environment

Unrest in South Africa: is forestry next?

- By Terry Bell

There are none so blind as those that will not see. It is a saying popularised more than 300 years ago and it has had marked resonance following the bloody events at Marikana and the more recent upheavals among the fruit and wine farms of the Western Cape.

At Marikana, 34 striking miners were shot dead by police on August 16 while striking and unemployed farm workers blocked the country’s main highway for days in early November. Earning a government decreed minimum wage of R69 (US$7.77) a day, the farm labourers are demanding R150 (US$16.89).

In most cases, it must take a concerted effort by employers and managers not to be aware of the general conditions faced by their employees. Especially when surveys and reports of these conditions are readily available.

However, courtesy of the geography bequeathed to South Africa by apartheid, most employers live in areas far removed from the township and squatter camp reality of their workers. The twain rarely — if ever — meet.

The same does not, generally, apply to farms where a legacy of master-slave-servant relations persists to varying degrees. It is also apparently feasible for employers, living in relatively close proximity to their employees to be ignorant of the needs, desires and economic circumstances of those employees.

But reports and surveys by reputable individuals and groups should at least alert even the most insular boss to the fact that all may not be well on the employee front. Even where reports may be missed, there are reminders such as the recent unrest on mines and farms that signal that all may not be well. These events do, sometimes, lift the blinkers from a few eyes.

When this happens, as in the recent case of a wealthy Western Cape furniture manufacturer who last month granted substantial wage increases to his workers and introduced a more collective method of working, it is rightly hailed. But such developments are an exception, although there are also other examples of good, established, labour practice.

However, these cases, such as Solms Delta in the Western Cape where two farm owners and their workforces together — and successfully — farm three properties, are few and far between. The number of farms that can lay claim to good labour practices are clearly outnumbered by the bad and, on the fringes of this number, are the decidedly ugly.

In fact, and despite government claims to the contrary, conditions for many workers on the land are today worse than they were under apartheid. This applies particularly in the forestry sector where generations of families have often lived in single “bush villages” remote from towns and most amenities.

Conditions have worsened in the past decade as outsourcing of labour became widespread. Today, among the 17 large forestry operations in South Africa, 82 per cent of the workforce of 36 025 are employed “on contract”, supplied by labour brokers. A further 5 per cent — 1 843 workers — are employed on fixed term contracts by the companies. Only 4 774 have permanent jobs and the benefits that go with this.

The steady deterioration of living conditions for many forestry workers has been highlighted in reports by specialists who conduct regular certifications for the inernational Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). Such certifications, to show that basic standards are adhered to, are required by a number of importing countries. FSC certification also provides a useful public relations tool for companies.

However, FSC membership is voluntary and there are companies that do not seek certification and where conditions, across the board, may be problematic to say the least. Where companies obey the letter of the law, even when conditions are worse than in earlier years, certification is still possible.

But forestry social assessment specialists such as Jeanette Clarke continue to highlight actual conditions in reports for government departments and the FSC as well as more widely. In recent months, Clarke, who has worked in the field for the past 15 years, has produced a series of articles for the trade magazine, SA Forestry. In these she has detailed the often dire conditions faced by many workers in the country’s forests as well as noting improvements where they exist.

Although there probably never was a time when life for forest workers was particularly good, some reports over the years indicate that the work for many was a job of choice; today, it is more often a job of last resort. In a special report in a leading financial magazine in 1997, for example, the five major private growers at that time had invested R239.6 million in housing infrastructure, and a further R63 million annually in running costs.

But Clarke noted recently that the “condition of forestry villages, the standard of services and provision of amenities, has been steadily declining since (1997)”. Meals, she wrote, were previously served from kitchens in villages, but were phased out. She explains that this followed requests by the workers, backed by unions, that extra payment rather than food be supplied.

What is left unsaid is the almost certain reason for this demand: debt and the loan sharks. Even at the best of times, living from hand to mouth, workers often find themselves in desperate need of extra cash, be it for school fees, a funeral or some other, unexpected, expense. The only resort they have is to the mashonisas, the informal moneylenders who are sometimes the very labour brokers who employ and hire them out.

According to a 2005 report by Clarke and a collaborator, clinics that had once provided primary and secondary health care to forest workers, were also phased out, not only because outsourced companies could not afford the maintain them, but because of new government regulations. Whereas companies could previously apply for a single license to cover all their operations, it is now necessary for every person dispensing medicines to have a license.

Along with the clinics, the once quite ubiquitous creches were also closed down by outsourced contractors who took over forest villages. Housing stock within many of these villages also deteriorated steadily, often making for worse conditions than a previous generation of workers experienced.

Although Clarke did not say it, the headline placed over her SA Forestry article last month, “Spectre of Marikana looms over forestry” has a worryingly predictive ring to it.

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