Women workers organised by radical South African union CSAAWU win gender equality and permanent jobs.

CSAAWU members attained a rally in Robertson, on of the union's fastest growing regions. Photo: CSAAWU

CSAAWU members attained a rally in Robertson, on of the union’s fastest growing regions. Photo: CSAAWU

Women farmworkers in South Africa have won an equal pay victory with the support of their union, the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU).

The Robertson valley as shown on Google Earth.

The Robertson valley as shown on Google Earth.

After five years of struggles, 24 women on Abata farm near Robertson were appointed on a permanent basis – with the same rights and privileges as male workers.

Karel Swart, CSAAWU’s deputy general secretary, called the victory a “breakthrough”.

Previously, women were employed on a piece work basis, being called in when their labour was needed by the farmer. This is part of a greater trend to flexibility and precarity in the South African labour market, as companies and labour brokers promote zero hour contracts as a solution to the country’s economic problems.

After a long battle, which included an application for mediation by independent employment arbitrator the CCMA, the women and their 30 male co-workers now all have permanent full-time contracts. However, women do still face some disadvantage: they will only receive wages for the days that they actually work. The battle to provide sick leave and maternity cover continues.

New labour legislation that came into force in last year effectively makes such insecure contracts illegal, but Swart says many farmers in the region still use loopholes to get around the law. However, he said that “CSAAWU’s membership in the farming areas is growing in leaps and bounds as workers become more aware of their rights and the value of organising around demands for decent working conditions”.

Last year CSAAWU’s women members held several meetings to consolidate their demands, such as accessible toilets in their places of work, permanent contracts and maternity leave. Many stressed the need for women on farms to have access to land, in order to grow their own food.

Robertson is a small farming village in the Boland region of the Western Cape province of South Africa. Farmworkers in this region grow fruit for export on world markets, as well as grapes for the 25 wine cellars in the valley.

Conditions on South African fruit and wine farms are sometimes very poor. Some farms are hundreds of years old, with social relations approaching feudalism. This has resulted in unrest, with riots breaking out in a number of towns, including Robertson, in the summer of 2012. Farm workers burnt down vineyards and blockaded roads in protest at poverty wages.

CSAAWU is a radical union that organises some of South Africa’s poorest and most marginalised workers. The union narrowly avoided bankruptcy after appealing for international solidarity to pay legal costs brought by employers after supporting workers involved in the 2012 unrest.

South African agricultural is under additional pressure due to the worst drought in a hundred years, believed to be a result of climate change exacerbating the effects of the El Niño weather cycle. The country is facing further turmoil due to a global fall in commodity prices, which have affected the steel and mining industries, and a fall in the currency, the Rand, to history lows. There has been a wave of workers unrest and industrial action over the past few years.


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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