Altercation highlights farm tensions

| Tessa Gooding and Margo Fortune
Former farm workers Amos White and Johan Carstens and CSAAWU General Secretary Karel Swart. Photo by Tessa Gooding.

An argument between a farmer and two employees has spiralled out of control. The story shows the kinds of problems fuelling the current farm tensions in the Western Cape.

On 19 February, farm workers Amos White and Patrick Philander wanted a lift on a lorry that was going to Atlantis to collect seasonal workers for the harvest. Their employer Willie Dreyer told them that they could not go. At this point Dreyer’s and White’s stories diverge.

Dreyer told GroundUp that he stopped White and Philander from going because he knew they would get alcohol and would therefore not be fit for work the next day. He says that both White and Philander responded by saying, ”You will see how farm murder looks in Boer land.”

White, on the other hand, denies that he or Philander said that they wanted to murder Dreyer. He explained that they were just trying to get a lift to Atlantis when they ended up arguing. He said that the farm foreman was driving and told him [White] to “Fuck off.”

Dreyer then called the police and accused White and Philander of verbal intimidation. Charges of common assault were laid against them and they were dismissed from his employment on 27 February. According to Dreyer his wife does not feel safe on the farm after this. “I had to spend R140,000 on burglar bars and security,” Dreyer explained.

White worked on the farm for twelve years and lived there from the age of 17. He says he and his fellow workers were paid R74 per day, five days a week, working from 6am to 7pm. They were allowed 30 minutes for breakfast at 8am and a one hour lunch break. They had to bring their own food. Water was provided for them from a water cart.

White believes Dreyer accused them because he didn’t agree with them joining the Commerical Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) and so wanted them off the farm.

In response Dreyer told GroundUp, “I’ve nothing against a union. I’ve got something against CSAAWU General Secretary Karel Swart. Karel’s opinion is that conflict is the solution to everything but we used to have a good relationship with all our workers.”

Swart is unimpressed at this accusation, “That’s rubbish. I do not believe in conflict. I believe basic human needs must be addressed. People can’t go without food, clean water and electricity.”

Tensions between Dreyer, his employees and CSAAWU have been brewing for a year. The union started a relationship with workers at the wine and olive farm in November 2011. Since then, Dreyer says that relations with some of his employees have become progressively worse with four people losing their jobs.

Fellow farm worker Johan Carstens also lost his job on the farm this year. He was dismissed 10 months ago for “inciting workers” after he became a CSAAWU shop steward.

White and Carstens explained how most of their money was spent on the farm. They bought food from the farm shop, often on credit throughout the month, which was then deducted from their wages. Swart said, ”They were effectively working for free: buying food from the farm to work for the farm and then there was almost nothing left.”

Dreyer confirmed that food is taken around to the workers on a buggy and then they make a list of who used what and this is deducted from their wages when they get paid.

White and Carstens accused Dreyer of bad treatment and verbal and racial abuse. They allege that on one occasion Dreyer told them, “I am the only one who will go up in life and to hell with you. I don’t want Kaffir guys on my farm.”

Dreyer denied this. ”That was a good one to come up with. Why would I spend R2.4 million on people I want to be down in the dirt?”

Dreyer says he is the only farmer in the region who has expanded his business in the past ten years, during which time he has bought two more farms. He says he has spent R2.4 million building new housing for the employees who live and work on Leeuwenkuil farm. “No one ever thanked me,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to build them all with bricks, so five are Wendy Houses. It’s only temporary, but it will do for now.” He said that previously some people had to use chemical toilets that were outside their home.

Dreyer also accused Karel Swart of “emotionally psyching people up” to make them antagonistic. He said, ”If someone is telling lies, it’s my duty to tell the workers they are being misled.” He added that he had to stop this however, after CSAAWU accused him of intimidating workers and denying people freedom of speech and association.

Swart has a different take, “”I educate people about their human rights. Apartheid must not remain. Sexism must not remain. That’s what Dreyer wants.”

Dreyer added that at a labour relations meeting hosted by the CCMA, Swart stated before the judge: ”I believe in conflict and that social revolution is necessary.” Dreyer continued, “A union needs to be smart enough to encourage me to expand my business so that I can pass benefits on to the workers. Like a good entrepreneur, I won’t give them 100% but I will definitely share my benefits.”

Swart denies that he said that social revolution is necessary. “I believe in social justice. Democracy is for everybody. I warned that if the conditions of the people do not change, it will lead to a bloodbath. I can anticipate more unrest and more violence if slave like relations continue on the farm. The farmer dictates everything. There is no democracy on the farms.”

Leeuwenkuil Managing Director Kobus de Kock explained the financial pressures on the farm, ”We get the same price for wine now as we did in 1997: R5 or R7 per litre. Then, diesel was R1.20 per litre, now it’s R12 per litre and electricity and other costs are so much more. We have to constantly find ways to do things cheaper.” He explained that the whole agricultural industry has been squeezed over the past 13 to 16 years and hopes there will soon be a balance between production and consumption, which will hopefully lead to a higher shelf price.

De Kock explained that as a result of CSAAWU’s allegations, a state-owned Norwegian alcohol monopoly they export to called Vinmonopolet audited the farm. They found isolated issues that, according to De Kock, have now been addressed. He added that they were was also audited by the Agricultural Ethical Trade Initiative WIETA on 20 September 2012. There were a few findings, ”definitely not major, or of the kind of allegations currently made, that must be addressed by 4 February 2013.”

Canadian PhD researcher Chris Webb, who wrote his MA thesis on labour restructuring in Western Cape agriculture and the response of trade unions, spoke to GroundUp. He said, ”The Western Cape fruit and wine industry is profitable and growing each year, yet this growth has not benefited workers … Improved wages should be accompanied by a land reform program that benefits the rural poor and farm workers who have historically been dispossessed. In order to do this COSATU needs to play a more active role in supporting rural workers, which they have historically ignored in their organising, and the ANC must act on its promises of rural development in supporting farm worker rights.”

White and Philander’s hearing will be held at Magistrate D Court, Paarl on 23 November. If they are found guilty, White will no longer be able to live with his sister on the farm. CSAAWU are arranging a picket outside the court from 8.30am. They are calling for an end to intimidation, the charges to be dropped, dismissed workers to be reinstated and a living wage for all.

See also Farmer accused of cutting electricity and food credit to break strike.

TOPICS:  Assault Economy Human Rights

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