The Miserable Lot of Farm Workers

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By Wezi Tjaronda WINDHOEK A recently released study on farm workers in Namibia paints a gloomy picture of their living and working conditions. Their conditions are characterised by fear, low levels of formal education, and dependence on their employers, eviction, low wages and strained relationships with their employers, says the report, titled: “Farm Workers in Namibia – Living and Working Conditions”. Most farm labourers work for long hours with low pay and no annual leave. On top of that, some report physical and verbal abuse, no knowledge of trade unions and no social security benefits. A large number of workers, especially on white commercial farms, complained of ill treatment, with the most common complaint being verbal abuse by farm owners. In the worst cases, the workers were reportedly physically beaten. Workers were found to live in constant fear of physical or verbal abuse and of arbitrary dismissals on 70% of white commercial farms in the Grootfontein area. In Gobabis in the Omaheke region, workers on four out of six farms reported ill-treatment by their employers. The study, conducted by the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI) was carried out in regions in the country as a follow-up to the Kameeta Commission and a study conducted by Unam and the Legal Assistance Centre on the same topic. Although there are massive differences in the different categories of workers, such as those in the employ of white commercial farmers, black commercial farmers and communal farmers, the bottom line is that farm workers’ conditions have not improved much since independence 16 years ago. The research team, led by Cons Karamata, visited 58 and 102 communal and commercial farms respectively in the nine regions and spoke to 345 workers. Most workers on white commercial farms were better paid than those on black commercial and communal farms, but were treated better on communal farms as they were regarded as part of the extended family. The study found that although the majority of the workers earned less than N$400, white commercial farmers paid better wages of between N$501 and N$600 on average, followed by black commercial farmers who paid between N$301 and N$400, with the communal farmers being the lowest paying as they gave their workers between N$201 and N$250 per month. In exceptional cases in the Hochfeld farming area, workers were paid between N$600 and N$1 500, while in the Khomas area, farmers paid N$450 to N$1 200. The majority of workers (45%) worked for a duration of 40 to 45 hours per week, although a third (35%) worked for 50 hours per week. “An analysis across farmer categories shows that workers on commercial farms work longer hours than their counterparts in communal areas. Workers in white-owned commercial areas indicated that they did an average of 48 hours while those in black commercial areas worked 40 hours,” said the study. It was also found that adherence to working hours was strict on commercial farms compared to communal ones, where most labourers worked at their own pace, ” … generally orientating their working day around the position of the sun”. The majority of white commercial farmers paid their workers overtime, with the lowest paid being workers of communal farmers. Although farm workers should by law earn not less than N$429 a month in addition to food rations, only 14.4 percent of the workers know about the minimum wage. While almost all commercial farmers (97.2 percent) pay their workers the gazetted amount, only 14 percent of communal farmers have implemented the wage. Launching the study yesterday, Bishop Zephaniah Kameeta said farm workers remain one of the most vulnerable groups in the country. He said they not only depended on their employers but also faced eviction from the land on which they lived since birth.