Weeks 14 – 17: Monday 31 March – Sunday, 26 April 2020
With South Africa in extended lockdown much of our news focuses on land news related to Covid-19. As South Africa’s confirmed cases rise to over 4361 with 86 confirmed deaths (26 April 2019), there are growing concerns about food security, the impact of a prolonged shutdown on the economy and the plight of poor and vulnerable South Africans. While social distancing may be feasible for the elite and middle-class South Africans, for many of our citizens living in overcrowded township housing, backyard shacks, informal settlements and hostels this is almost impossible to put into practice. The shutdown impacts on the local economy and critically on food security as many people are no longer able to work and many of them are now unable to secure a livelihood.
We explore some of the issues which have surfaced in the South African news for weeks 14 – 17.
Farmers large and small and farm workers provide essential services to ensure that food is produced, harvested, packed and processed for both local and export markets. News this month has focused on how the lockdown regulations have impacted on farmers and workers.
The Portfolio Committee on Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development set the tone (The Citizen 31 March, 2020) by urging farmers to ensure that adequate arrangements are in place to enable hygiene and social distancing and to keep the agricultural sector safe. The Committee sought to send out a strong message that violation of farm worker rights would not be tolerated, noting that South Africa relies on them to feed the nation.
The Farmers Weekly (01 April, 2020) highlighted aspects of the lock down regulations relating to agriculture. They noted that “while not a legal requirement, agribusinesses have been encouraged to make use of the labour force that can be accommodated on site or isolated from other communities as far as possible”. Given that there has been a long-standing trend to casualise and externalise farm labour, with many casual workers living in poor conditions, often in informal settlements ringing rural towns, this poses a real challenge for the agricultural sector in the context of the pandemic.
With rising levels of community transmission it is a matter of time before Covid 19 finds its way to the farms, pack houses and processing facilities which will raise the risk threshold with respect to food safety. The Farmer’s Weekly cites recommendations made by the World Health Organisation including:
- The temperature of all employees must be checked before they enter the workplace. Employees with an elevated temperature (37,7 – 39,4°C) or high temperature (above 39,4°C) should be asked to go home and self-quarantine for 14 days;
- Those administering the temperature tests should wear gloves, and use new disposable lens filters in the case of ear thermometers or forehead thermometers;
- Ensure that the workplace is set-up to allow for social distancing between employees (2m apart);
- All surfaces and objects must be are regularly disinfected;
- Hand washing facilities and sanitising hand rub dispensers must be located in prominent places around the workplace and these dispensers must be regularly refilled.
Dr John Purchase, CEO of Agbiz who is also one of the representatives of organised agriculture on the Department of Agriculture Covid 19 task team, urged farmers and agribusinesses to strictly adhere to published regulations and hold each other accountable to comply with the law.
GroundUp (1 April, 2020) reports on alleged health violations taking place in the agricultural sector. They cite an official from the Department of Labour who stated that they had received “numerous complaints from workers that some employers are forcing them to work without the necessary personal protective equipment”. The Department was reported to have closed down a few unspecified businesses in the previous week.
Activists working with farmworkers reported that social distancing was not in place – particularly when workers were transported to and from the farm and also with in pack houses. However, we are just beginning to grasp the implications that the regulations pose for day-to-day farming operations. Farmers’ transport costs will rise significantly if they are to observe social distancing. More trips will need to be made, or additional transport procured which may not be available or affordable.
A tragic road accident (EWN 8 April 2020) which took place on 7 April on the N1 between Touws River and De Doorns claimed the lives of nine workers and placed another 18 in hospital, may reflect the mounting pressures on farmworker transport. The case of culpable homicide has been opened. In commentary on the accident, farm worker rights groups have raised concerns about the transport of workers in open trucks without seat belts. However, with the accelerating risks of Covid-19 infection this may turn out to be preferable and safer than transporting people in closed transport.
Workers are also feeling the pressure in pack houses which are designed for pre Covid-19 work processes, in which the ratio of workers to pack house tables does not make allowance for social distancing. Most pack houses will not have sufficient packing tables to ensure the correct distance between workers packing fresh produce. There are no easy solutions here, as workers desperately need employment. As pack houses are forced to reduce shift sizes and stagger working hours to enable proper social distancing, this will cause loss of worker income and also slow down the packing process, impacting on the enterprise as a whole.
The impacts of Covid-19 on the agricultural sector raises questions about how things will change to accommodate the ‘new normal’. In an op-ed (Daily Maverick 5 April 2020) Wandile Sihlobo asked whether the pandemic might structurally change the agricultural labour market. He observed that the current labour shortage challenge in Europe and the US could result in a focus on increased automation in the agricultural sector post Covid-19, noting that “any changes in major agricultural producing countries will in the long run will be transferred to the domestic market”.
On 9 April president Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the Covid-19 lockdown would be extended to the end of the month. This raised serious concerns about mounting hunger in the country. GroundUp (14 April 2020) reported on the risk to farmworkers, especially women who were already facing a crisis of hunger just two weeks into the lockdown. According to Colette Solomon, director of Women on Farms the crisis was exacerbated by two key factors – the inability of seasonal workers to claim unemployment insurance due to the closure of the UIF offices and the failure to provide sufficient access to food for vulnerable households. A farm worker from Rawsonville explained how they were being squeezed by rising prices and not being able to claim UIF.
“We haven’t got our UIF, plus many things are more expensive in the shops here in Rawsonville. How are we going to survive? The President must open the Labour Centres. He doesn’t know how we are suffering.”
Women on Farms made a range of recommendations to double the amount of all social grants for the duration of the lockdown, and to take measures to introduce a basic income grant or social wage to include all 10 million unemployed South Africans. Solomons concluded:
Covid-19 has exposed South Africa’s inequalities in wealth, healthcare, housing, water and sanitation, but surely the most perverse is the fact that women farm workers, the producers of our food, do not have enough food to feed their families.
GroundUp (16 April 2020) also reported how safety measures had been ramped up at a Ceres fruit pack house after an employee had reportedly tested positive for Covid 19. In a follow-up article on 24 April GroundUp reported that the pack house was still in operation under strict guidance and supervision of the Department of Health who had tested workers allowing those who tested negative to return to work. The report records that the Department of Agriculture has been providing support services to various agricultural stakeholders across the province, such as providing farm workers with face masks and sanitisers.
An article (EWN 7 April 2020) reported how people working at a fresh produce market in KwaZulu-Natal complained about inadequate safety compliance after an employee tested positive for the virus. The decision was taken not to shut down the market as it would have negatively affected food security in the province. These articles indicate that Covid-19 infection is starting to work its way up the food system from retail to pack houses and fresh produce markets. This highlights the need for careful adherence to hygiene and social distancing standards throughout the food chain.