When losing your job means losing your home

Former farm worker battles to keep house on Ceres farm but farmer says there is a shortage of homes for current workers

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Photo of three people
Petrus and Elizabeth Paulse and their grandson Regan live on Laastedrif Farm in Ceres, where Petrus used to work. They face the prospect of losing their home. Photo: Aidan Jones

Petrus Paulse, 53, has lost his job on the Ceres farm where he has worked for seven years, because of illness. But what worries him most is that this means he will also lose his house.

Paulse and his wife Elizabeth, 49, live in a house on Laastedrif Farm in Ceres – a fruit and vegetable farm – where Petrus worked from 2008 to 2015. “I resigned and moved to the Northern Cape in 2015 to live with my daughter because she got an RDP house,” said Paulse. In January 2018, he returned to the farm on a six-month contract, and moved back into a house on the farm.

Petrus said he was asked by Rossouw Cillié, the farm owner, to come back and work on the farm, but Cillié said Petrus had asked him. Petrus resigned on 14 March, he says he was pressured into resigning.

“Petrus was absolutely not pressured into resignation. There is no way we would do that,” said Cillié. “We only found out afterwards that he was medically unfit for work, and you can’t work like that; it’s too much of a risk.”

Paulse said he had informed Cillié upfront that he had asthma and arthritis, and that Cillié said it was “no problem”.

Manie Poole of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, which is representing Paulse in the matter, said according to the law if an employer claimed a worker was not fit for duty, an incapacity investigation had to be conducted. “That did not happen in this case,” he said.

However, Paulse and his wife are both on disability grants. They receive R1,600 per month each.

At a hearing on Monday conducted by the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) the two parties could not come to an agreement over his employment contract. “They offered Oom Petrus R4,500, provided he vacate the premises in ten days,” said Poole. “We rejected it and now the matter will go to arbitration.”

“I can’t accept R4,500 if I don’t have a roof over my head,” said Paulse.

Cillié acknowledges the problem of housing for people who are not working on the farm. “I had a man working for me for 40 years and he lived on the farm with his wife. He passed away 13 years ago and his wife and kids still live there.” But he did not want to apply for an eviction order because he had a responsibility to the wife of this longtime employee. “The problem is that I now cannot provide that house to a farmworker on my farm,” said Cillié.

Naomi Betana, a paralegal worker at Witzenberg Rural Development Centre which advises community members on housing issues, said Petrus and Elizabeth Paulse had come to the office for advice on 9 March.

“The following Friday, on 16 March, a Laastedrif lorry came to collect their things,” said Betana. “So we put all their stuff in our offices and told Rossouw this is not how it works; proper process needs to be followed.” She said they moved the Paulses’ belongings back into the house on the same day.

“My things were damaged,” said Elizabeth Paulse. “The stove and the fridge have deep dents.” Betana said the lorry was driven by an employee of Laastedrif Farm.

Cillié says Paulse put his belongings onto the lorry himself.

“It is very difficult for us because there has been no electricity in the house since March,” said Elizabeth. “I have to fetch wood. I have three electric stoves but I can’t do anything with them. We have to cook over the fire.”

Cillié said Paulse had electricity for his house, “and so do all the farmworkers living on the farm”. Paulse just had to top up his pre-paid meter, said Cillié.

Cillié said he employs “550 to 600 permanent farmworkers” and that some stay on the farm and some stay “in town” (Ceres).

Paulse said he could not go back to the Northern Cape. “There is no space there. The house is full. My daughter’s boyfriend moved in and they bought furniture. So for now I will stay on Laastedrif. If I can get a house in Ceres, because I am on the waiting list, it would be alright. Then I could move out of the Laastedrif house.”

Petrus applied for housing in Ceres in 2014. According to Jo-Anne Krieger, director of community services at Witzenberg Municipality, there are 2,508 families on the housing waiting list in Ceres and 11,221 families in the entire Witzenberg Municipality.

Poole said Paulse’s case will go to arbitration “in the next two to three weeks”. “But the CCMA has no jurisdiction over housing issues, so the arbitration will only look to resolve the employment dispute.”

This means that the matter of the Paulses living in the house on Laastedrif Farm will have to be dealt with separately, by the courts and housing authorities.

Betana wants landowners to help with housing. “It’s time for the big companies in Witzenberg to step up to the plate and take responsibility,” said Betana. “We would like landowners to engage in strategic discussions around farmworker housing, make progressive proposals, put a budget aside and invest in local housing projects. Stop buying land for production and profit. Buy land for housing.”

TOPICS:  Farming Housing Labour

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Dear Editor

We lost our home as well when my husband got retrenched. We could not afford the bond payments anymore. We took pension money paid the house and sold it. The money has kept us going during the times my hubby didnt have a contract job. Now he is dead, there is no contract job and we don't have a house in our name. The pension left is not enough to finish paying school and university fees.

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