CoE Articles

Times have been perilous for farm women and waste pickers

Published August 18, 2020, by Mologadi Makwela

A mother in tears because she has a loaf of bread to eat but not enough money to send to her children in another town or city, or even country.

Stories like this one, as recounted by waste picker Eva Mokoena, typified what was happening around the country amid the COVID-19 lockdown. In many ways, women farmworkers and waste pickers personified the pinch that many in South Africa immediately felt once the country’s lockdown went into effect at the end of March. Almost overnight countless women, who are often the breadwinners or carers in their households, were cut off from their already unreliable incomes.

It’s their trials that inspired the theme – ‘Surviving on the Margins: Precarious livelihoods in times of crisis’ – of the first of the 2020 Women’s Month Webinars to be hosted by the CoE-FS, hosted by UWC and the University of Pretoria (UP). On 13 August, panellists and guests looked at just how hard these groups were hit by the lockdown, and what could be done to buffer them against future crises.

Women have traditionally drawn the short straw on farms, having to scrape livelihoods off informal seasonal work while men typically held the permanent jobs or held land tenure, explained first panellist, Carmen Louw, Co-Director of Women on Farms Project (WFP). The lockdown, and associated alcohol ban, was introduced on the eve of the hiring season for the wine and deciduous fruit industries, costing the women employment opportunities.


Due to these historic inequalities and the seasonality of the employment, women are disproportionately affected by the consequences of COVID 19 in these two industries

Carmen Louw, Co-Director of Women on Farms Project

While some agricultural activities continued, the door was immediately shut on the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of waste pickers in the country. (Estimates put their number at anything between 35,000 to 200,000.) Labouring on the fringes of the formalised and often lucrative waste management and recycling sectors, waste pickers have by virtue of their informal status no access to standard employment protection measures or those put in place over the lockdown.

Unfortunately their contribution to the sector is overlooked, argued UWC’s Professor Catherina Schenck, who holds the South African Research Chair in Waste and Society. Collecting waste from streets or landfills, often at risk of violence and with little or structural support from their industry, these waste pickers are estimated to collect some 90% of the country’s recyclable waste, said Schenck. In so doing, they save municipalities, it is calculated, around R700 million in landfill airspace.

“They don’t get the recognition for what they are doing,” said Schenck.

To offer a first-hand perspective of just how vulnerable waste pickers are, Eva Mokoena, who is also chairperson of the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO), said the impact of the lockdown was immediate and painful. “It was so hurtful to see most women crying because they couldn’t get money to send to their kids who are from outside of South Africa. Or even the ones that are here, the South Africans, they were also struggling.”

Yes, organisations like PETCO, which represents part of the plastic recycling industry in South Africa, stepped in and raised funds for waste pickers, recounted the organisation’s Belinda Booker. But even those often amounted to a mere drop in the bucket.

Both industries need some level of formalising, argued panellists. Waste pickers need structural recognition and support from municipalities, agreed Booker and Schenck. Likewise, even seasonal farmworkers need to be formally registered, while a longer-term solution is that women farmworkers have independent access to their own land, said Louw.

The lockdown has also breathed new life into a dormant conversation around a universal basic income grant for South Africa. Such a grant could make a substantial dent into poverty in South Africa, it has been argued. A scaled-down version in the form of the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant was introduced over the lockdown.

“Personally I am a great supporter of the basic income grant, because I think it gives a bit of a safety net,” said Schenck. “Then on top of that…if something like [COVID-19 lockdown] happens, there is already something in place that can carry them through a crisis.”

With lockdown downgraded to level 2 in the middle of August, there is for now only hope that those in need can start earning again.

The CoE-FS will host its second Women’s Month Webinar on Tuesday, 18 August, at 13:00. It will be titled “Feeding in a Time of Crisis: Social protection and governance during a pandemic’; and will feature presentations by CoE-FS co-director, Prof Lise Korsten of UP, Ms Petrina Pakoe, Director of the Peninsula School Feeding Association and Dr Wanga Zembe-Mkabile, Specialist Scientist at the South African Medical Research Council.

related Articles

Community of Practice renamed in keeping with its COVID-enforced remaking

When, in 2017, a group of scholars chose to christen a new initiative within the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in…

Guidelines to reduce the risk of enteric and typhoid fever

Following media reports of recent cluster outbreaks of typhoid fever and online conversations about gastro-related issues, the DSI-NRF Centre of…

Our response to the 2022 State of the Nation Address

In response to the State of the Nation Address, delivered on Thursday 10 February 2022, the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence…