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The Ordeals of Farmworkers

Publishing Date : 06 March, 2018

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After the dark clouds had fallen, solemn hearts have probably healed, it is crucial to rekindle the debate on farm workers and farmers. Unfortunately the previous debates were clouded by cultural and political connotations, hence the debates were soiled.

A year never passes without incidences of deaths in farms. In most instances, particularly in Botswana, farmers appear to be at the receiving end of these brutal crimes. It is easy for farmers get killed as they leave behind hunting guns with their workers to protect livestock against predators. Instead of using fire guns on predators, those loaded weaponries are used by farm workers as revenge for being abused by their employers. There are cases were farmers have butchered their farm workers. In other cases, farm workers kill each other from a range of reasons emanating from love affairs, alcohol consumption and petty theft. It appears love affairs fights amongst farm workers take the lead.

My submission intends to focus on losses of lives instigated by farm workers on their masters. A year never passes without experiencing painful incidences of farm deaths. Every time they occur the blame is apportioned to the farm workers mainly because of their social status. Unfortunately trade unions in the country have also dismally failed to organize farm workers, due to two main reasons. Even when barrage of attacks are levelled against poor farm workers, they are never protected with resolute voices from labour circles. Dismally, they are often bashed by the same people they are supposed to shield, being trade union activists.

Batswana largely engage in a traditional livestock economic activity, where the cultural-economic activity is livestock rearing and habitually trade union leaders and activists are cattle barons. Instead of protecting farm workers, the downtrodden, they dismally protect their economic zones by unfairly ridiculing the behavior of farm workers. Surprisingly, perpetrators of abuse are left scot-free. The precariat in most cases never receive protection from the law, from the employer and even from the people presumed to safeguard them, as is the case with farm workers.

Firstly, farm workers do not have stable income to fulfill trade union membership check-offs. Farm workers are not organized, because trade unions concentrate on workers with reliable check-offs. Botswana trade unions sustenance mainly borders on monthly membership subscriptions. Unions prefer workers with central salary deduction points. It is therefore cumbersome to collect farm workers monthly levies.  Ironically, trade unions value members’ monthly dues than ideologies, values and socialistic principles.

Trade union members would not either allow their pooled monetary resource to help non-members. Members’ stance would not be strange given that they have not been oriented to recognize that trade unions exist for the larger society. Opening up to the broader society solidifies trade unions strategies on organizing and forming a collective block to defeat the oppressor.

It is crucial for trade unions to afford free membership to precarious workforce, such as farm workers. Trade unions should strive for a ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ workforce from shackles of servitude, as an injury to farm worker should be an injury to the working force. Countries Federations should organize the working class, the precariat and the jobless.

Secondly, farm workers as a ‘precariat’ class live in far-flung places, where communication is burdensome for trade unions to easily access their territory. On that vein, the willingness and vigour to extend solidarity to farm workers has been far-fetched. Trade unions have deliberately ignored their core value, which is ‘solidarity.’ Progressive, altruistic and more nationalistic trade unions embrace workers of different spheres of lives notwithstanding economic ruin of that grouping.

Precariat workers such as farm workers and domestic workers could be given free membership by trade unions. The essence of trade unionism is collective force which is geared towards social changes, and that should not be determined by capital rather by the spirit of selflessness portrayed in collectivism.

There is very minimal or no monitoring on compliance to minimum wage of farm workers. As for the government, while there is no attack on minimum wage collective bargaining, however the minimum wage bargaining council structure makes it difficult for trade union influence decisions due to asymmetrical representation. The most populous trade union federation is also not represented in the Board. The greatest unfortunate development is that the Minister has absolute powers on minimum wage decisions. The MW Board acts on ceremonial basis since it makes recommendations to the Minister who is not obliged to accept the Board’s recommendations.

As a recommendation strategies to address the problem, trade unions could collaborate with the Department of Labour Inspectorate and make joint visitations to farms. Hold joint capacity building workshops for farmers and farm workers sensitizing them on implementation mechanisms of minimum wage. Trade unions should also translate documents and minimum wage regulations, minimum wage schedule and penalties/fines levelled against those not abiding by the legal expectations.

Industries and employers not fulfilling the obligations should be named and shamed. Trade Unions should borrow a leaf from other progressive countries like United Kingdom, where MW Board are independent and clean from political influence. Trade Unions need to know the basket that makes up consumables for minimum wage. The enlisted items in the basket end up having a decent living wage capable to sustain MW beneficiaries.

Another important policy, there should be a fixed adjustment of minimum wage, which makes increment automatic, therefore avoiding other cumbersome and protracted MW negotiations. Lastly trade unions need to arm themselves with better knowledge and skills on MW, which will make them strive fight for a national minimum wage that covers all workers in the sector of the economy, rather than industry based.

Though cases of farmers refusing workers get trade union membership are remote, the problem lies with the government, especially the Ministry of Labour. The inspectors responsible for checking farm workers working conditions are understaffed, operate with limited resources to cover farms.  For instance the whole South East region has a single vehicle for usage by inspectors.

Since the country is a livestock rearing activity most farm workers are abused by farmers. Most farms are in the peripheral locations, where roads are inaccessible, therefore makes it cumbersome for labour inspectors visit farms. Government is not committed to help in this regard by empowering labour inspectors visit farms.

Labour inspectors are either failing to reach farms because of inaccessibility of farms, due to poor roads and communication to make appointments with farmers. Most farm workers are illiterate so they cannot easily express their dissatisfaction, or form trade unions hence the need for trade unions to help them organise. Out of desperation, coupled with living hopeless lives farm workers may end up committing crimes.

Due to farm workers vengeance, they end up reacting violently by murdering farmers out of depression, revenge or hatred. Alcohol indulgence though is rife in farms, may not be the main factor for committing such crimes, there could be other underlining factors such as abuses, beatings, underpayments, belittlements, bullying, denial of leave days, lack of vacations, lack of identity, isolation and depressions.

The minimum wage is insignificant, farmers take advantage of the slavery wages to abuse workers. Some farmers pay much higher wages more than the stipulated minimum wage, therefore making it very difficult for trade unions organize workers. Farm workers are mostly paid in-kind, such as provision of free clothing, shelter and food. In good times farmers buy their workers drinks to imbibe, or even slaughter a beast or goat for a feast. Farmers cover funeral expenses in case of bereavements for farm workers and their immediate family dependents like spouses, parents, siblings and children.

Payment of wages are inconsistent. Herr posits that, “wage dispersion in cases is the most important factor for inequality.” Since farmers are paid wages far below the equilibrium levels, the society becomes unequal due to wage dispersion. The wage pittance received by farm workers cannot afford them a decent living. It thus defies the government obligation of eradicating poverty, the minimum wage works against the government poverty eradication initiatives.

Customarily, the way farmers treat farm workers is often inhumane, discriminative and abusive. There is a strong perception amongst farmers that farm workers are difficult characters to deal with. Farm workers live in squalor, live dejected lives, in abject poverty and eat unbalanced meal. This kind of situation is okayed by most farmers and the general public given how Batswana ordinarily view farm workers.

Generally farm workers are treated as sub-humans, amazingly by social activists claiming to represent the societal grassroots. In other places, farmers frequent their farms to whip farm workers just for leisure. Derogatory remarks are thrown metaphorically to equate a stubborn or uncivilized character to a farm worker. Farm workers globally are abused because of their precarious state. This is a remote area particularly in Botswana, were trade union researchers and academia need to seriously ponder on.



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