Monday, March 12, 2012


Global Capital always finds a way.  Sometimes the way to increased profits is to make things bigger and bigger.  Sometimes the way is to make things smaller.

In South Africa, the Global Godfathers of Capital have seen that large farms in the sugar trade actually hurt their profits and end up providing more, meager thought they may be, but still more benefits for their workers.

Now small farms, family farms, are virtually regulation free, so workers on them can be exploited to the hilt.  In fact, some small family farms basically super exploit the family itself.  

Work, work, work...for nothing.

Parts of the sugar industry in South Africa are unionized totally, but not the farm workers.  The unions aren't interested in the hassle, the fight, or for that matter the workers.  The big industrial unions like skilled workers, always have, and in the South Africa sugar fields the unions don't find the types of workers they most enjoy, as it were.

Mbendi Information Services reports:
The South African sugar industry makes an important contribution to the national economy, generating in the region of R6 billion annual direct income. The industry also provides significant employment opportunities, particularly in rural areas.
There are in the region of 42 300 registered sugarcane growers in South Africa. Most farming takes place in Kwa-Zulu Natal, with some farms in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. There are 14 sugarmills currently operating, owned by 5 milling companies.
The South African sugar industry produces an estimated average of 2,5 million tons of sugar per season. South Africa produced a total of 2 273 499 tons in 2007/08 of which 1 399 657 tons was for the national market and 873 842 tons for the international market.
Three companies active in South Africa are Tongaat Hulett, Illovo and TSB.
Tongaat Hulett Sugar, started in 1854, is a world leader in sugar milling technology throughout the Southern African region. It has four mills in South Africa (Maidstone, Darnall, Amatikulu and Felixton) as well as a central refinery, situated in Durban, which has an annual refining capacity of some 600 000 tons.
Illovo Sugar is Africa’s biggest sugar producer with extensive agricultural and manufacturing operations in six African countries. Illovo has a 38% share of industry production in South Africa and is a major supplier of sugar to African consumer and industrial markets.
TSB Sugar, a wholly owned subsidiary of Remgro, has as its core business activity the production of refined and raw sugar that is marketed either nationally, by Quality Sugars under the Selati brand name, or exported through the South African Sugar Association (SASA).
Lots of money to be made, most of it landing in the hands of international capital.  Almost none of it going to the people working their asses off in the fields.

By the way, it is of course, not only sugar farm workers who face virtually intollerable conditions and exploitations in South Africa.

The conditions faced by fruit and wine industry farm workers rank just about as appalling.

A Hurman Rights Watch report itled Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries[PDF], documents “conditions that include on-site housing that is unfit for living, exposure to pesticides without proper safety equipment, lack of access to toilets or drinking water while working, and efforts (by farmers) to block workers from forming unions”

During an inspection last year, Labour minister Mildred Oliphant said she was shocked and disturbed by what she saw.  She said she would personally see to it that these conditions were improved.  She proclaimed: “A caring society cannot stand by and watch as people are treated in this fashion.”

Of course, it isn't like these conditions just suddenly dropped from the sky or were hidden away in a dark closet somewhere.

As the Mail and Guardian writes:
But it’s highly unlikely that the minister was not aware of these appalling conditions prior to her official visit last week. Let’s remind the minister that those workers are actually considered lucky to have some kind of bed to sleep on. Others in farms in the North West and Limpopo sleep on the floor, Honourable Minister, with no blankets or even a mattress. And others, mostly illegal immigrants in farms near Musina and the Kruger National Park, are made to sleep with pigs in their stalls, or with donkeys and cows in their kraals. These testimonies are contained in the HRW 2011 report, but when I visited a farm near Venda in 2004/2005, workers there told me of similar sleeping conditions.
Let’s also remind the minister that this is not the first time that farm abuses in South Africa were reported by Human Rights Watch. The problems that farm workers and farm dwellers face are not unknown to the South African government, Honourable Minister. Nor are they unknown to the farmers (not like they care), or to retailers such as Pick ‘n Pay, Woolworths and Checkers who purchase products made from these abused farm workers’ hard labour. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) reported on similar abuses in 2003, and again in 2008.
The minister should also know that the problem in the farms is bigger than just sleeping on steel bed springs. There are still many labour law violations such as low wages, food in exchange of labour, long working hours, child labour, hiring illegal immigrants for cheap labour etc. that require serious and urgent attention.

The Minister should know.  The Minister does know.  The unions shojuld know.  The union do know.

Now, you know.

Only the workers themselves are likely to force changes.  Someday, against all the odds, they damn well will.

The following is from Pambazuka News.

Sweatshop Sugar

Labour exploitation in South Africa’s cane fields

Jason Hickel

2012-03-08, Issue 574

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The 74,000 agricultural workers who plant, weed and harvest hundreds of thousands of acres of cane are mostly not unionised. They work in extremely dangerous conditions with very little by way of rights and protections. Until recently, they didn’t even enjoy a minimum wage.
When you pour a packet of South African-made sugar into your morning coffee, you can feel good about the fact that the workers who milled, refined, packed and shipped it are paid relatively decent wages, enjoy basic benefits and are protected against severe exploitation. In many respects, South African sugar is about as ‘ethical’ as sugar gets. That’s because the South African sugar industry bears the happy distinction of being unionised wall-to-wall.

But the benefits of unionisation apply to only one side of the sugar industry: the milling sector. The other side of the industry — the agricultural sector — has been almost completely ignored by the union movement, despite the fact that it is much more labour intensive. While the industry’s milling sector employs about 5 000 workers, the agricultural sector employs more than 74 000 — those are the people who plant, weed and harvest the 430 000 hectares of cane that stretch across the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal.

Almost none of these workers are unionised. They work in extremely dangerous conditions with very little by way of rights and protections. In fact, until recently they didn’t even enjoy the basic benefit of a minimum wage. It wasn’t until 2003 that the ministry of labour got around to implementing a floor of R3.33 an hour. Given annual adjustments, today this figure reaches closer to R7. But this still represents only about a quarter of what even the lowest-paid workers earn for less work in the unionised milling sector.


Why have these workers been so neglected by unions? Part of the reason is that they are dispersed across such a massive geographical area. To organise farm workers, unions have to travel to far-flung locations, sometimes spending a whole day just to meet with a handful of workers. To make matters worse, organisers are often threatened or shot at by farm owners when they show up at private estates; the remoteness of most cane plantations and the lack of legal infrastructure in rural areas lends itself to a sort of wild-west style capitalism.

The unions that cover the milling sector — led by the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) — have attempted to bring farm workers under the umbrella of the National Bargaining Council. But these efforts are repeatedly shut down by the big employers, most notably Illovo and Huletts, the two multinational corporations that together control around 65 percent of the industry. They argue that milling and agricultural operations are too different to be compatible within a single framework, despite the fact that is normal procedure in other countries, such as neighbouring Swaziland.

Illovo and Huletts are learning to take full advantage of this split arrangement. They have begun to divest themselves of their agricultural holdings by selling off large tracts of cane — up to 50 percent of their land, in the case of Illovo — to small farmers, many of them black. Industry representatives justify the move as “advancing black economic empowerment” and complying with progressive land-reform targets.

But scratch the surface of this charitable facade and more cynical motives quickly become apparent. Offloading land onto small farmers doesn’t compromise the efficiency or profitability of the industry. Quite the opposite. Small farmers can usually do the job just as well, and the upshot for the industry is that dispersing production among many private growers — about 30 000 at last count — makes unionisation much more difficult than when farmworkers are formally employed by a concentrated number of publicly listed companies.


Outsourcing agricultural operations allows companies like Illovo and Huletts to get cane more cheaply because small farmers can avoid unions, slip through the cracks of regulatory mechanisms, and usually don’t provide workers with fringe benefits like clinics and ARVs. It’s the Walmart strategy applied to sugar — a full-scale “race to the bottom” for cheap labour. Big corporations like Illovo and Huletts can effectively abandon their responsibility for maintaining decent wages and labour standards while protecting themselves from public outcry or worker insubordination.

This is where the sweatshop analogy becomes appropriate. Just as Nike avoids unions and labour laws in the Western world by outsourcing to sweatshops in the developing world, so Illovo and Huletts avoid unions by outsourcing to small farmers. Just like sweatshop owners, these farmers often operate with precarious, razor-thin profit margins and stay afloat by forcing down costs, usually by employing the most vulnerable and exploitable workers they can find and hiring them on a “seasonal” basis so that they can be retrenched on a whim.

Some of the smaller operations run as family businesses centred on homesteads, where farmers rely on their wives and children for labour and have zero recourse to the benefits that come with formal employment. In other words, corporations have shifted the costs of social reproduction onto the family unit. And this at a time when industry majors are enjoying higher-than-ever export prices and unprecedented new access to Western markets that have been forced to abandon subsidies and tariffs.

As with sweatshops, the labour process on the cane fields is designed to extract as much as possible from workers. Employers set thresholds for the number of tons or rows that each worker must cut a day, and compensate for annual minimum wage adjustments by raising them in order to squeeze out more productivity. If workers fail to reach their thresholds they are often not paid the full rate, sometimes up to 33% less than the minimum wage. Most workers put in seven days a week with only one or two days off per month, usually without ever receiving overtime pay. Benefits are non-existent, and maternity leave is unheard of.

This is why the South African Sugar Association can boast that it produces cheaper sugar than 85 percent of its global competitors.


Much of the blame for the plight of farm workers belongs to the unions. Aside from a few half-hearted attempts, Fawu and Cosatu have made no serious effort to organise farmworkers in South Africa. They remain committed to the model of industrial unionism that worked so well for them in the 1970s and 80s, focusing on workers in higher-skilled, full-time, formal employment to the exclusion of workers in casual, rural, and so-called “a-typical” jobs. As a result, Cosatu has come to be characterised by a relatively middle-class, often white-collar constituency based largely in urban centres — what Sakhela Buhlungu has so aptly called a “labour aristocracy” that no longer reflects the nature of the general workforce.

This approach is quickly becoming irrelevant in South Africa today. Neoliberalism is eroding the country’s industrial base, increasing casualisation, and forcing millions of workers into the informal sector; in other words, “a-typical” work is quickly becoming the norm. Cosatu needs to come to terms with this fact. The labour movement must learn to adapt to new socio-economic conditions as quickly as neoliberalism produces them; that means fanning out into the farms, into the markets, and — yes — even organising the unemployed, to build a movement of dispossessed citizens that extends beyond the factory floor. This is the future of labour organising.

Fortunately, new sources of hope are beginning to emerge. In 2006, organisers at Khanya College in Johannesburg spearheaded the Southern African Farmworkers Network, which aims to link trade unions that organise farmworkers across the region. The network’s new flagship campaign will focus on the sugar industry. Hopefully this effort will succeed not only at unionising farmworkers, but also at making small-scale operations stable and profitable for farmers and their employees.

The task ahead is not impossible. Lest we forget, the South African labour movement under apartheid managed to defy all odds by successfully overturning the most exploitative system of racial capitalism on the planet. Those were heady times. But true liberation remains out of reach for vast swathes of the country’s rural population. As far as they’re concerned, the revolution has yet to begin.

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