Some of the 245 Zimbabwe migrant farm workers brutalized and evicted last September from a large farm in South Africa, where many had toiled for years, have now been vindicated in court.
In a recent court hearing in South Africa, a judge rejected the farm owner’s argument that the workers were on extended strike and should not be compensated or reinstated. The judge offered the workers back pay or reinstatement, and the seven workers present opted for reinstatement to the farm at the legally determined wage.
The judge indicated he could reinstate only workers who were present, and with the assistance of South African Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), the seven workers have begun searching for the other workers.
Zimbabwe Migrant Farm Workers Driven from Their Homes
Last August, the Zimbabwean migrant farm workers, who labored on four vegetable farms operated by Johannesburg Farm, asked for a 59-cent-per-day pay increase. The workers, who were paid $120 month, roughly half the legal minimum wage, regularly put in 12-hour days, seven days a week, and were forced to toil 17-hour days during the harvest.
In September and according to witnesses, a group of men led by the farm owner fired rubber bullets at the workers’ homes, setting some on fire to drive workers out of their houses, where they were assaulted and clubbed. One of the workers, Edias, told Solidarity Center staff that he and four other workers were then kidnapped, tortured and interrogated for hours before police arrived. (For farm workers’ safety, we are using first names only.)
Unable to look for other jobs because the farm owner had confiscated their work papers, Edias and the others traveled to a refugee camp in Lephalale, South Africa, where they arrived in December near starvation.
Criminal Case and Wage Case Pending
Two other cases are pending. One involves a criminal hearing, set for late August, on the kidnapping and torture of the farm workers. South Africa’s Labor Department is leading the second case, which focuses on the issue of wage law violations. The Labor Department has the authority to demand back wages to January 1, 2015—which total more than $100,000—and assess penalties for violating the law.
Along with FAWU and the Migrant Workers’ Union of South Africa (MIWUSA), the Solidarity Center has provided key support to the Zimbabwe migrant workers, enabling them to be represented in court, offering material aid, generating public attention for their plight and raising awareness of the often brutal working conditions of migrant workers across South Africa.
The workers who are returning to the farm say they will post the ruling on minimum wages for farm workers and tell Solidarity Center staff that they feel vindicated—like human beings with standing and rights, according to one worker.
Camposol employees at a company assembly. Credit: Solidarity Center
Eighteen agricultural workers in Peru were detained during a work stoppage as they protested an agro-industrial company’s failure to uphold its collective bargaining agreement, according to the Camposol Workers’ Union (SITECASA). One union leader, Carmen Silvestre Rodríguez, was beaten by the national police, and the union’s general secretary, Felipé Arteaga, has been arrested, the union said.
SITECASA members began a peaceful work stoppage March 12 at the company’s facilities in Chao, a town in the country’s northern region. They are seeking the company’s compliance with several provisions in the region–wide collective bargaining agreement reached in July 2013, including resolution of daily production quotas for field workers, payment of annual profit sharing and provision of proper uniforms, footwear and meals for workers.
Field workers, who harvest avocados, mandarin oranges, mangoes and blueberries for export, currently must harvest 60 pallets before they receive their minimum daily wage of $11. According to the union, Camposol has conditioned its willingness to negotiate these points on the union’s retraction of an article in the collective bargaining agreement that provides employment stability (an indefinite contract) for workers with four years working for the company.
Camposol S.A. is Peru’s largest producer and exporter of non-traditional horticultural products like asparagus. Approximately 14,000 workers labor on Camposol’s vast plantations throughout the country. In 2012, the U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Report cited Camposol for interfering with workers’ right to strike after the company failed to reinstate 250 workers dismissed for participating in a strike during collective bargaining.
Read the union’s full statement (Spanish).
Working in large-scale agriculture creates a whole new set of challenges for women—exposure to harsh pesticides and chemicals, isolation, sexual harassment and violence and a production quota that seeks to “turn women into machines.” But women in agriculture also have the opportunity to earn wages that can better themselves and their families, said Samantha Tate, Solidarity Center country program director for Peru.
Tate opened the Tuesday afternoon plenary session at the Solidarity Center conference in São Paulo, Brazil, “Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality and Labor Rights: Transforming the Terrain,” where 100 union and community activists from 20 countries are meeting to share strategies, network and build collective strength.
At the plenary, “Women Worker Rights in Agriculture: the Reality, Challenges and Opportunities,” four women working to empower female agricultural workers—in Peru, Honduras, Morocco and Brazil—discussed the hardships of women agricultural workers and the successes they have achieved.
“While the sector grows and grows, we as workers are not growing,” said Rosa Julia Perez Aguilar, secretary of women’s, child and adolescent affairs at the union confederation, FENTAGRO, in Peru. Although the monthly salary for a woman working in agriculture is $234, a family of five in Peru needs a minimum $546 a month to live, she said. Salaries are so low, “children are forced to work” to enable families to survive—and as a result, they receive little or no education, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Women in all four countries face similar struggles and, in words of Alessandra da Costa Lunes, are fighting to “break the invisibility.”
“Overcoming inequality will mean full citizenship for women,” says Costa, vice president and women’s security at CONTAG, a 22 million-member union confederation in Brazil.
In Central America, Irís Munguía is among those holding leadership trainings and empowering women in the banana, pineapple and sugar cane industries to take on important roles in their unions and their communities. Munguía, the first female coordinator of COLSIBA, the Latin American coordinating body of agricultural unions, also has helped spearhead a contract framework agreement for multiple Central and South American nations that women can adapt during bargaining.
In Morocco, women working in agriculture in Morocco are taking part in unique trainings tailored for a workforce with low literacy, said Touriya Lahrech, coordinator of the Confederation Democratique du Travail (CDT). In turn, these women go on to train other women in isolated rural areas about such issues as the involvement of international financial institutions in their local economies, a situation “not unique to Morocco but … a shared reality with other women, the fruit of economic policies that deny women their social and economic rights.”
And in Brazil, union women taking part in the gender equality conference plenary session now have a new network of sisters and brothers in working in agriculture from around the world.
Says Lahrech: “The moment we go back to our countries, I will tell my colleagues and sisters we are not alone. Our solidarity as women coming from across the globe can only move forward our positions as women.”
As commercial farms increasingly dominate the world’s cash-crop market, women’s mass migration into commercial agriculture has become a global phenomenon. In Peru, women take jobs in asparagus-processing plants. Colombian women rely on their wages at flower farms to survive, and women in Zambia toil in vegetable production to feed their families. Rural women now contribute roughly half of the world’s food and women in developing countries generate between 60 percent and 80 percent of the labor needed to produce food crops in developing countries.
Yet enabling women farmworkers to gain a voice on the job so they can improve their working conditions is made harder by their isolation and the discrimination they face as women. Union and community leaders from more than 20 countries meeting next week at a Solidarity Center conference in Brazil will share successful strategies for organizing and empowering some of the millions of women toiling in agriculture. Agriculture is one of three themes at July 30–31 conference, “Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality and Labor Rights: Transforming the Terrain.”
Agricultural remains one of the most dangerous industries and the precariousness of this work is compounded by informal employment arrangements driven by the seasons when cash crops are planted and harvested. This plight is more common for women farmworkers because they comprise between 50 percent and 70 percent of the informal workforce in commercial agriculture.
Women farmworkers also face gender-specific work-related dangers. They often labor alone in fields, where they are vulnerable to sexual harassment, physical abuse and rape. Women workers are offered less training in handling harmful chemical substances, and commercial farm owners prefer to hire women for repetitive, labor intensive tasks that require greater dexterity.
In addition to enduring physical danger, workers are denied decent wages. Higher skilled, permanent positions that require operating heavy farming machinery often are reserved for men. Even when women have comparable positions with men, their wages lag significantly—up to 50 percent less than their male co-workers. Some employers even require a male family member to collect a woman’s paycheck.
Despite these difficulties, women have joined together and improved their workplaces, while winning recognition for the importance of their rights by often male-dominated unions and worker groups.
One such example is Sikhula Sonke, a woman-led social movement and trade union that seeks to address social and labor concerns of those living and working on fruit and wine farms in South Africa. At the conference, labor scholar Nina Benjamin will discuss how South Africa’s first women-led agricultural trade union demonstrates womens’ ability to lead and organize on their own behalf in a union movement whose leadership is predominantly male.
Women–and the work they do—are central to productivity and economic growth, to breaking the cycle of poverty and to ensuing more inclusive and just societies. Yet too often they face unnecessary barriers and terrible choices when it comes to work. Far from being economically empowered, millions of women around the world, including here Peru, find themselves vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, below-poverty wages and unsafe working conditions. The legal environment either enables their condition or fails to protect them.
More than 200,000 women work in the Peruvian agriculture sector planting harvesting and processing fruits and vegetables—asparagus, avocados and red peppers—that grace American dinner tables. Many are young mothers and migrants from the Peruvian sierra. Vulnerable, uneducated and far from their family, the women work long hours (for which they may or may not be paid) in fields and packing houses where sexual harassment is the norm. They sleep in crowded, improvised housing. And on the work site, they and their children are exposed to toxic fertilizers and pesticides.
Peru’s Agriculture Promotion law, which regulates workers rights in this sector, includes legally mandated employer benefits within the minimum wage, and allows employers to hire workers on short-term contracts that can be renewed as the market need requires.
Additionally, it allows for a cumulative work week, which means that overtime pay is often not paid. The result? A generation of women who are employed in precarious conditions, unable to earn sufficient money to educate themselves or their children.
Peru’s apparel industry, one of the lowest paying sectors in the country, has a majority female workforce. The work is difficult and unstable. Like their sisters in the agriculture sector, workers are hired under short-term contracts, which deny benefits and a reliable income, and guarantee that complaints are rewarded with firing.
However, thanks to U.S.-Peruvian cooperation, some of this country’s most at-risk working women are finding their voice. They are advocating at the workplace for enforcement of labor laws and fair wages. They are fighting for respect and dignity, for economic inclusion and for a fair shot at ensuring that the next generation of workers will be better off than their parents.
USAID and worker-support NGOs like the Solidarity Center have helped Peruvian farmworkers form a new federation of farmworker unions, FENTAGRO, which is working to strengthen labor provisions—currently allowing below-average wages—in the Agricultural Promotion Law. Together with two textile and apparel federations, the FTTP and the FNTTP, Peruvian garment workers are learning their rights and working together with brands, consumer advocacy groups and other public sector stakeholders to improve laws that permit unfair contracting practices.
In Peru as in the rest of the world, the inclusion of women in a country’s economic present and future is vital. This can only occur if their work is valued and fairly compensated and if their rights are respected.