The grape sector has become a very lucrative industry with large volumes of grapes harvested for export to European markets, raking in millions of dollars at the great expense of workers who earn peanuts.
Since 1988 the industry has grown from strength to strength and the export volume from last season’s harvest is expected to reach about 6 million cartons of grapes worth about N$540 million.
However, the living conditions of the workers who are mostly unskilled are deplorable. For the past 26 years workers have received low salaries, lived in reed houses without potable water, and had no ablution facilities and other basic amenities.
The situation has irked some //Karas regional leaders into sitting side by side to take a critical look at the sector’s work practices and the current conditions of grape workers.
//Karas Regional Governor Lucia Basson, speaking on the abject conditions of the workers, said there is no difference between the current conditions and those of contract labourers under apartheid colonial rule.
She said the companies do not care about the well-being of their employees but are only interested in the profit they make, no matter the way they make it.
“They don’t mind that the workers do not have proper housing or sanitation – as long as they make a profit they are happy and we want to change that,” she said.
The regional head strongly condemned the current conditions of workers and the reed houses they live in, saying they are unhealthy. The reed houses are prone to fires in which lives have been lost in the past.
Basson called on the grape companies to start building proper houses and vowed that the region’s political leaders would fight to the end to make sure the workers get proper housing.
The Regional Councillor of Oranjemund Constituency Lazarus Nangolo concurred with Basson, saying the companies’ lack of will to uplift their workers social well-being should be seen in the same light as that of the issue of blood diamonds, as bosses only want to enrich themselves.
“If your workers don’t have basic amenities how can you be happy taking all of the profits?” he asked
//Karas Regional Council Chairperson Jan Scholtz also condemned the workers’ living conditions, saying it’s unacceptable that people live in such poverty in an independent Namibia.
He said the workers contribute immensely to the income of the grape companies and the gross domestic product (GDP) and they should thus get their fair share of the profits.
“These people work and contribute to Namibia’s GDP, so why can’t the companies contribute to their workers’ upliftment?”
During a recent visit to Komsberg, one of the grape producing farms, the Minister of Home Affairs and Immigration Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana also expressed her shock at the workers’ plight, and called for urgent interventions from regional leaders.
The workers shared their grievances with the minister, expressing their anger over their poor lifestyle, saying the companies don’t care about them and are only interested in making millions on the backs of their hard labour.
Justinus Linyando narrated to the minister that he has been at the farm for 14 years now but his salary remains below N$2 000, and from that he has to take care of his wife and two children.
“How can I improve my living standard like that? But they are improving their lives,” he said.
The poor wages, lack of housing and sanitation seem to be the trademark of grape companies as about 90% of their workers live in such conditions, despite companies expanding their vineyards and increasing export volumes, and thus their profits.
The Namibia Farm Workers Union (Nafwu) General Secretary Rocco Nguvauva in a telephonic interview admitted the conditions of the workers are very poor, adding that the situation is similar to that experienced by contract labourers before Namibia’s independence.
“These are the same conditions, nothing has changed,” he stressed.
The union has been fighting to remedy the situation but companies are reluctant to comply, saying ‘we have done our best’, he said.
Back in 2014 former president Hifikepunye Pohamba ordered the Namibia Development Corporation (NDC) board chairperson John Nekwaya to leave his entourage immediately upon seeing the squalid conditions of the grape workers at Naute Dam.
Pohamba described the conditions as “unacceptable, unhygienic and inhuman”, and asked if the treatment of workers is based on their skin colour. Pohamba further said the living conditions reminded him of his days as a contract worker under the apartheid colonial government.