Employees forced to pay rent on houses they built as farmers seek to force them off their properties writes Molatelo Mohale

The farmers’ practice to unlawfully and forcefully remove the residents from their homes barely grabs the government attention. Instead the government has introduced the legislation and practices that regulate evictions as opposed to stopping the same.

Evictions resonate with the government’s Agri-Parks plan which was incepted in 2015. The state incepted this ambitious project for ‘establishment and development of rural industries and the facilitation of market linkages’.

This tripartite land ownership and governance of smallholders, government, and commercial farmers excited a lot of commercial farmers given their notion of reducing the commercial farmland strictly workplace.

 The Agri-Parks failure is attributed to a number of factors, including lack of capital injection and elite capture. Some may perceive this project as objective to accelerate land reform in the country.

However, in the farm dweller community, it translates into structural eviction. It certainly obliges resettlement of new entrants in possibly small and congested spaces under the pretext of development while illegal evictions take place.

It is a widely known fact farm workers are among the lowest and underpaid labourers in the country. The national minimum wage for farmworkers last year is R18.68 per hour.

However, this has not stopped some commercial farmers in Limpopo squeezing hundreds of rands from their workers’ salaries under the guise of accommodation fees.

At one such farm in Baltimore in the far north west of the province, workers are subjected to a deduction of R425.25 each for accommodation. This is despite that the mud and shack dwellings were built by the workers themselves many years ago.

The money for the ‘’accommodation fee’’ is deducted on the payday to ensure that the workers observe this forced arrangement. This is commonly practiced in farms under Waterberg and Capricorn district municipalities. This unreasonable deduction will only worsen their already dire situation.  

The practice to force farm residents to pay rental so they continue staying in their homes is a component of the bigger orchestrated plan aimed at evicting the poor farm residents.

A lot of farm owners advocate for offsite settlement of farm workers and residents with the notion that the latter unnecessarily overburden the owners’ business.

In Limpopo commercial agricultural farms are dominated by shacks and mud houses built by workers and dwellers without employers’ support.

These structures have dilapidated over the years. In some instances, few fortunate farm residents occupy the portions that the state acquired for them on the same farm. 

The farmers believe that farm residents are supposedly the sole responsibility of the government, residing off farms despite that these people work and live on their farms.

The law requires that employer and employee abide by employment and labour related laws, failure to do so carries dire consequences.

However, the situation is worryingly different on farms. The commercial farmland employers grossly violate the relevant legislation without facing the law.

The situation worsens as farm owners deploy new strategies to frustrate the farm dwellers- workers to drive the latter away. This new disturbing wave of mistreatment appears as a strategic campaign to strengthen the oppressive practices on farms.

Recently in some farms, the employees were forced to enter into an agreement that ensures that the money received from the Covid-19 Disaster Relief Fund is equally shared with the employer. Failure to sign this agreement, the employee risks immediate suspension from work without pay and subsequent dismissal.

This bizarre practice in the commercial farmlands is done without at least prior discussions or negotiations with the affected parties. It’s just the order of the big bosses.

Although numerous attempts were undertaken to persuade employers to revise this discomforting arrangement, the workers’ efforts fell on deaf ears. 

In a normal rental arrangement, a landlord would collect the rental money for personal reasons, but also ensure that the tenants’ premises are kept intact, and their related needs are catered for, unlike in the situation of farm residents. So what is this imposition and weird accommodation fee collected for?

I view this causative and orchestrated strategy largely aimed to deliberately contravene the employment and labour laws, and subsidize the enterprises, however, delineate as if farm enterprises are compliant with the laws in this country.

A lot of commercial farm enterprises paying labourers a minimum salary as stipulated in the Department of Employment and Labour’s Sectoral Determination law but effect hidden fees such as water, accommodation and waste collection etcetera.

It is my hope this article will trigger innovative means to curb this disturbing trend of unfair labour practices on commercial farms. The Department of Employment and Labour amongst others is the best-positioned authority to enforce compliance to labour laws and possibly rescue the farm residents from this predicament.

The department needs to also be closer to these vulnerable groups so that such issues are picked up at an early stage.

Molatelo Mohale is a Programme Convenor at Land Network National Engagement Strategy, a South African civil society alliance that promotes people-centred land governance.

He is a Programme Officer at Nkuzi Development Association, a land rights support organisation based in Limpopo Province. He is a fellow at Landac, an international Professional Learning Network and Jaijagat 2020/International land Coalition, a network of non-governmental organisations focusing on land and agriculture issues.

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