Sweatshop Sugar

Labour exploitation in South Africa’s cane fields – Published on Pambazuka News, by Jason Hickel, March 8, 2012.

The 74,000 agricultural workers who plant, weed and harvest hundreds of thousands of acres of cane are mostly not unionised. They work in extremely dangerous conditions with very little by way of rights and protections. Until recently, they didn’t even enjoy a minimum wage … //


  • Why have these workers been so neglected by unions? Part of the reason is that they are dispersed across such a massive geographical area. To organise farm workers, unions have to travel to far-flung locations, sometimes spending a whole day just to meet with a handful of workers. To make matters worse, organisers are often threatened or shot at by farm owners when they show up at private estates; the remoteness of most cane plantations and the lack of legal infrastructure in rural areas lends itself to a sort of wild-west style capitalism.
  • The unions that cover the milling sector — led by the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) — have attempted to bring farm workers under the umbrella of the National Bargaining Council. But these efforts are repeatedly shut down by the big employers, most notably Illovo and Huletts, the two multinational corporations that together control around 65 percent of the industry. They argue that milling and agricultural operations are too different to be compatible within a single framework, despite the fact that is normal procedure in other countries, such as neighbouring Swaziland.
  • Illovo and Huletts are learning to take full advantage of this split arrangement. They have begun to divest themselves of their agricultural holdings by selling off large tracts of cane — up to 50 percent of their land, in the case of Illovo — to small farmers, many of them black. Industry representatives justify the move as “advancing black economic empowerment” and complying with progressive land-reform targets.
  • But scratch the surface of this charitable facade and more cynical motives quickly become apparent. Offloading land onto small farmers doesn’t compromise the efficiency or profitability of the industry. Quite the opposite. Small farmers can usually do the job just as well, and the upshot for the industry is that dispersing production among many private growers — about 30 000 at last count — makes unionisation much more difficult than when farmworkers are formally employed by a concentrated number of publicly listed companies.



  • Much of the blame for the plight of farm workers belongs to the unions. Aside from a few half-hearted attempts, Fawu and Cosatu have made no serious effort to organise farmworkers in South Africa. They remain committed to the model of industrial unionism that worked so well for them in the 1970s and 80s, focusing on workers in higher-skilled, full-time, formal employment to the exclusion of workers in casual, rural, and so-called “a-typical” jobs. As a result, Cosatu has come to be characterised by a relatively middle-class, often white-collar constituency based largely in urban centres — what Sakhela Buhlungu has so aptly called a “labour aristocracy” that no longer reflects the nature of the general workforce.
  • This approach is quickly becoming irrelevant in South Africa today. Neoliberalism is eroding the country’s industrial base, increasing casualisation, and forcing millions of workers into the informal sector; in other words, “a-typical” work is quickly becoming the norm. Cosatu needs to come to terms with this fact. The labour movement must learn to adapt to new socio-economic conditions as quickly as neoliberalism produces them; that means fanning out into the farms, into the markets, and — yes — even organising the unemployed, to build a movement of dispossessed citizens that extends beyond the factory floor. This is the future of labour organising.
  • Fortunately, new sources of hope are beginning to emerge. In 2006, organisers at Khanya College in Johannesburg spearheaded the Southern African Farmworkers Network, which aims to link trade unions that organise farmworkers across the region. The network’s new flagship campaign will focus on the sugar industry. Hopefully this effort will succeed not only at unionising farmworkers, but also at making small-scale operations stable and profitable for farmers and their employees.
  • The task ahead is not impossible. Lest we forget, the South African labour movement under apartheid managed to defy all odds by successfully overturning the most exploitative system of racial capitalism on the planet. Those were heady times. But true liberation remains out of reach for vast swathes of the country’s rural population. As far as they’re concerned, the revolution has yet to begin.

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