Joint Publications

Going nowhere fast? Changed working conditions on Western Cape fruit and wine farms – A state of knowledge review

Published 14 September 2016, by Margareet Visser

Publication: PLAAS Working Paper 41

This state of the knowledge review sets out to identify the main research themes and findings in the literature on labour relations and conditions on Western Cape fruit farms over the past 20 years. The paper also compares if and how farmworker livelihoods have changed since the heyday of Apartheid, and the role of the state in these changes. While farmworkers enjoy vastly more legal protection than in the past most may, in fact, be worse off economically.

This lack of improvement can be attributed to the state’s contradictory policy approach to the sector: while it extended protection to farmworkers post-1994, it withdrew support from producers, especially regulatory support that previously forced them to bargain collectively with international retailers. Since 1994, international retailers have increasingly consolidated and formed buyer monopolies, so producers now face extremely powerful bargaining partners as individuals and have therefore become price takers.

To protect their profit margins, producers have externalised and casualised their labour forces, and moved workers off-farm. The research points to the limited power of the state to regulate employer-employee relations that are embedded in global value chains, and to the problematic of relying on a narrowly rights-based approach to remedy working conditions. While aiming to regulate employer-employee relations within its national jurisdiction, the state has failed to insulate such relations from the power wielded in the global fruit value chain that shapes relations right into the farmyard. Such power relations not only shape the commercial relations between international retailers and local producers, but also between local producers and their workers.

The review also highlights the importance of analysing producer agency in contesting or circumventing state policy decisions, which ultimately affect workers’ livelihoods. Yet, the paper points out that worker and producer responses to the impacts on them have been under-explored.

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