Women farmworkers haunt South Africa’s fruit and wine industries

Farm work is hard work, and farm workers around the world suffer abuse and exploitation that often seems to marry predation to sadism. A most recent, and vivid, picture of this emerges in this week’s Human Rights Watch report, Ripe with Abuse Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries. The report focuses on the fruit and wine industries of the “wealthy and fertile” Western Cape, where the greatest number of farmworkers, around 121,000, live. The report documents the active abuse, and worse, of farm owners and farm managers, and the often active failure of the State to live up to its Constitutional obligations to protect workers, families, citizens, people, women.

In South Africa, the report was picked up by the Mail & Guardian, the Sowetan, the City Press, The Times, The Cape Times, to name a few. Internationally, the BBC, the Guardian, and the Telegraph commented. In a number of reports, women farm workers or farm dwellers appeared.

For example, farmworker Sinah B struggled against forced eviction. Her employers cut off her electricity and running water, in the middle of winter, while farm security guards harassed and persecuted Sinah B and her two children morning, noon, and night.

Johanna Flippies and her family have been forcibly evicted from three farms in the last ten years, because her husband is a union shop steward. For Flippies, life on the farm is hell, life off the farm is … hell.

For workers on Western Cape farms, life is dismal, misery.

The news coverage of the Human Rights Watch report universally avoided the gender of misery. In the farmlands of the Western Cape, hell and misery have a face, and it is a woman’s face.

Farmworkers are divided into two large categories, permanent and casual or seasonal. Permanent farmworkers are in the main men. Women are seasonal. Even if they work year round. On the same farm. For the same employer. For years. Non-permanent farmworkers are the most abused, the most exploited, the most vulnerable, the most precarious, the under assault. They have fewer State-sponsored protections, for what they’re worth. Very few are organized in unions. As women, they’re paid less than men farmworkers, who are themselves paid, by law, less than domestic workers. Occupational health violations, such as lack of protection around pesticides, targets women. For women living on the farms, workplace sexual violence flows into domestic violence.

Human Rights Watch, in its report, explicated the gender dynamics of farmworker abuse and exploitation. Why have the news outlets avoided the women? Farmworkers around the world suffer abuse and exploitation. In the Western Cape of South Africa, farmworkers generally have it hard. But women farmworkers are the heart and soul, and target, of abuse and exploitation. Women farmworkers haunt South Africa’s wine and fruit industries … and silence about women farmworkers haunts the news.


(Photo Credit: Marcus Bleasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.