Covid-19: Lockdown threatens women farm workers’ access to food

“We are going to starve” says seasonal worker in De Doorns

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Photo of a farm
Most perverse of the effects of the lockdown is the fact that women farm workers, the producers of our food, do not have enough food to feed their families, writes Colette Solomon. Archive photo: Maryatta Wegerif

On Thursday 9 April, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the lockdown to disrupt the transmission of Covid-19 would be extended until the end of April. While we understand and support this extension, farm workers, especially women, are already facing a crisis of hunger two weeks into the lockdown, largely because they have been unable to access two key sources of livelihood support that should have kicked in already, namely unemployment benefits (UIF) and social relief in the form of food parcels.


The last decade has seen not only a rapid casualisation and feminisation of agricultural labour, but increased job insecurity and precariousness.

After the introduction of the National Minimum Wage (NMW) in 2019, many farmers responded by reducing the length of time women were employed during the 2019/20 season. Many women seasonal workers did not know if, when and for how long they would be employed. The majority of seasonal workers on grape and wine farms in the Western Cape just finished the harvesting season in March. Most will now be without work until the next season starts in October. Their main source of income during the off-season is their unemployment benefit (UIF).

However, because all labour centres of the Department of Employment and Labour have been closed since the lockdown started on 27 March, seasonal workers have been unable to submit and process their UIF applications. The department has not put effective alternatives in place for farm workers to process their applications.

More than 100 women contacted the Women on Farms Project (WFP) during the first two weeks of the lockdown, sharing the impact of their inability to submit their applications in order to receive their UIF benefits, which are a statutory entitlement.

Jeanette, a woman seasonal farm worker from De Doorns, said, “During this time, we seasonal workers are dependent on our UIF money. Without our UIF, we are going to go hungry, especially me who is a single parent.

Anna, a farm worker from Rawsonville, said, “We haven’t got our UIF, plus many things are more expensive in the shops here in Rawsonville. How are we going to survive? The President must open the Labour Centres. He doesn’t know how we are suffering.”

Gina from Stellenbosch said, “Things are really difficult for us seasonal workers. We can’t get our UIF money. What is going to become of us?”

Challenges arising from farm women’s inability to access their UIF entitlements could have been mitigated if they at least had access to food parcels.

Social relief

Both President Ramaphosa and Premier Winde of the Western Cape have announced an extension to the provision of food parcels. However, farm workers have been unable to access these much-needed food parcels, because the qualifying criteria and assessment mechanisms set out by the Department of Social Development do not reflect the extraordinary time in which we find ourselves and the urgency in getting the food parcels out to families in need.

For example, criteria include: “A person and their household who have insufficient means to sustain themselves during the lockdown period…”. By that criterion, all farm workers should automatically be eligible. However, the referral and assessment process is unnecessarily bureaucratic and impractical for our lockdown conditions.

Susan from Wellington said, “We heard about the food parcels, but we don’t know how to get it. Everyone here in New Rest is unemployed, so we all need food parcels”.

Magda from Ceres said, “Some people asked a ward councillor how we can get the food parcel. But he didn’t know. Please tell President Ramaphosa not to forget the farm workers.”


With the extension of the lockdown, President Ramaphosa stressed that “extraordinary measures” and “exceptional methods” will be needed. We call on government to take this opportunity to introduce transformational and structural measures, including land redistribution to farm workers and dwellers.

In the immediate short-term, the growing food crisis being experienced by women farm workers must be addressed. Farm women are calling on government to:

Making UIF accessible:

  1. Immediately reopen Labour Centres, classifying them as an “essential service” in order to process UIF applications. (Obviously, all social distancing and hygiene protocols should be adhered to.)
  2. Introduce mobile Labour Centres to travel around farming areas to process UIF applications. (Public transport restrictions make travel from farms to towns difficult.)
  3. Introduce a free call or data free phone or WhatsApp service for the processing of UIF applications.
  4. Ensure that UIF payments are made within three working days.

Social relief:

  1. Minimise the bureaucratic red tape of the vetting and assessment process so that farm workers are able to receive food parcels expeditiously. For example, use mobile DSD buses which can travel around farming areas and undertake immediate assessments, ensuring that food parcels reach households within three working days.
  2. With current criteria already targeting households with “insufficient means to sustain themselves during the lockdown period”, simply provide food parcels to all farm workers and dwellers.
  3. Using SASSA’s existing database of social grant beneficiaries, simply double the amount of all social grants for the duration of the lockdown.
  4. Take the “extraordinary measure” and introduce a Basic Income Grant or Social Wage, which would not only include all farm workers, but rest of the 10 million unemployed South Africans, the 25% of South Africans who already experience hunger, and the 50% of South African adults living in poverty.

Covid-19 has exposed South Africa’s inequalities in wealth, healthcare, housing, water and sanitation, but surely the most perverse is the fact that women farm workers, the producers of our food, do not have enough food to feed their families.

Women’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Colette Solomon is Director of Women on Farms Project.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Covid-19 Farming

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