The Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) is an African feminist legal centre striving to advance women’s rights and equality, specifically working with women who work in precarious and vulnerable positions.
The aim of this programme is to help women obtain favourable and just working conditions in the workplace.
It is in this light that we have joined forces with the Women on Farms Project (WFP) to engage with the Department of Labour on farmworkers and their experiences during this time.
Many women who live and work on farms have suffered immensely during the national lockdown and since the COVID-19 pandemic hit South Africa.
Women who rely heavily on UIF benefits have had no access to UIF relief during this time as the labour offices were closed to the public and the alternative measures put in place by government were not cognisant of their hardships, and proved to be ineffective.
Meagan Barber, a seasonal farmworker and single mother who lives in the farming community of De Doorns, in the Western Cape, has had no income since March 2020, when her work on a local fruit farm ended.
‘At the time, we couldn’t hand in our UIF forms because the labour offices closed due to the lockdown.
‘We are asking the president and the minister: please, open the labour office for us or make a mobile office available.
‘We are dependent on our UIF payments.’
Like many other women who live and work on farms in South Africa and who do seasonal work, Meagan Barber depends on unemployment benefits to provide for her family in the months that she is not employed on the farms.
Many of these women have approached the Women on Farms Project (WFP) during this time, seeking awareness and assistance.
The WFP is a non-governmental organisation that has been working with women who live and work on farms in the Western Cape since 1995 and the Northern Cape since 2009, and research they have produced has shown that women make up 59 per cent of the workforce within the deciduous fruit industry in the Western Cape and 57 per cent of the workforce in table grape sector.
In the apple industry, women account for 40 per cent of the permanent workforce and 70 per cent of the seasonal workforce.
The WFP has repeatedly pleaded with government to take heed of the lived realities of women who work on farms by amending lockdown regulations to allow for the opening of labour centres as well as other measures to protect the health of women farmworkers during the COVID-19 crisis.
The WFP has specifically asked that the Department of Labour open labour offices, make mobile labour offices available in rural areas and ensure that the farm owners and employers are providing the necessary PPE and are observing required health protocols, such as hand sanitiser, protective gear and screening.
The WLC sent a letter to Employment and Labour Minister Nxesi on May 11, 2020, further explaining the need for government to help women farmworkers access UIF payments. To date, the WLC and WFP have received no suitable response from the Department of Labour.
While the WLC and WFP welcomes the measures put in place by the government under the COVID-19 Temporary Relief Scheme, 2020, for the most part, women farmworkers have not been able to access such assistance.
Measures such as these, put in place without a specific gendered lens, will not have the necessary effect and relief on the lived reality for women who live and work on farms.
We have indicated in our correspondence that the directive which provides for guidance on how employers can apply for temporary financial relief and that unemployment insurance relief applications by employees should be made online via email or fax options are inadequate as they place the obligation on employers to recognise their employees and their rights and to make the necessary applications to the department in a sector where the exploitation of farmworkers is well documented.
These measures therefore fail to take this exploitation into account.
In addition, women farmworkers were dismayed to recently discover that the boxes placed outside closed labour centres, supposedly to provide a place for workers to submit hardcopy UIF forms, turned out to be inadequate.
After inspection, these boxes were found to be totally insecure as they are broken, open cardboard boxes where passers-by can physically reach into the boxes and remove the forms; alternatively, they can easily read confidential information contained on the forms, including ID numbers and banking details; also, the boxes are not regularly emptied.
This is a clear example of how labour directives and guidelines that are not cognisant of the lived realities of women who work in precarious positions during a national crisis will be wholly ineffective and will only contribute to the already deepening economic crisis the country faces.
Women who work on farms do so far removed from any sense of oversight and are at risk of not only poverty and social instability during these times but are also the women who are most at risk of infection and spreading the virus among their communities if they are not adequately protected at their places of employment.
Elsa Lambrecht, who also lives in De Doorns and does seasonal farm work, is having difficulty submitting her UIF application because she does not have access to the internet and cannot travel.
‘We do not have smart phones or laptops or computers which we can use to claim our UIF benefits online. Not all of us have social grants and we cannot continue to exist on food parcels from soup kitchens.
‘Last year, the minister said that UIF is a safety net for us farmworkers but right now there is no safety net. Please open the labour centres so we can claim our UIF benefits.’
This is the lived reality for thousands of women who live and work on farms.
The WLC and WFP join Meagan Barber, Elsa Lambrecht and the many thousands of other women farmworkers in South Africa to call on Minister Nxesi and the president to immediately open labour offices, have a specific plan focused on economic relief and access for farm workers during this time and, more broadly, to seriously consider the lived reality of these vulnerable women when enacting legislation and directives at this extraordinary time.
The Women’s Legal Centre remains open for business, fulfilling their mandate to serve women and children, regardless of the circumstances. They can be reached on 079 421 8197 or via email at email@example.com
Chriscy Blouws is an attorney at the WLC and heads the Women in Work programme.
Featured image: Most perverse of the effects of the lockdown is the fact that women farmworkers, the producers of our food, do not have enough food to feed their families. Women farmworkers, who rely heavily on UIF benefits, have had no access to UIF relief during this time as the labour offices were closed to the public and the alternative measures put in place by government were not cognisant of their hardships and proved to be ineffective. (Archive photo: GROUNDUP/ MARYATTA WEGERIF)