Day 4: Women Farm Workers Dying for Food

Fatima Shabodien

Blog post by Fatima Shabodien

Former Director of the Women on Farms Project
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One of the ultimate perversities of our era is that the producers of food and their children often go to bed hungry. Reform of commercial agriculture is urgent if the women farm workers who grow and pack our food are to have enough to eat.

By Fatima Shabodien, former Director of the Women on Farms Project

In November 2011, my middle-income country, South Africa, was shocked by a news report of four children from one family having died of starvation and dehydration in a veld. The children of the Mmupele family, ranging in ages two to nine years, died after following their farm worker mother who went in search of food. How is it possible, we all asked ourselves, that in a fertile region known as the heart of South Africa’s maize triangle, those who grow our land’s staple food could have succumbed to such a tragic dark-age fate?

Food insecurity is widespread and hunger is a common experience of those who live and work on South Africa’s commercial agricultural plantations today. One of the ultimate perversities of our era is that the producers of food and their children often go to bed hungry. Growth stunting as a result of malnutrition is most marked among the children of farm workers. 

"One of the ultimate perversities of our era is that the producers of food and their children often go to bed hungry."

Women are particularly vulnerable within this system as their access to housing and jobs remains almost completely dependent on a relationship with a man.  In a context where alcohol dependence and gender-based violence form a potent mix, this dependence literally has life and death consequences for women and their children.

Despite a world class Constitution and Bill of Rights that clearly outlaws discrimination based on gender, a highly institutionalized system of job reservation exists in commercial agriculture in South Africa. The higher-paying, permanent jobs are effectively reserved for men (based on a patriarchal construction of men as heads of households), while women are largely limited to seasonal, insecure, low paying and often more dangerous jobs. Such discrimination encourages women to forgo meals when food is scarce, since all livelihoods depend on a male breadwinner in the family.

South Africa is one of the most urbanized countries on the African continent with an estimated 62 per cent of the population living in cities. The pressure on commercial agriculture to simultaneously feed the ever-growing cities and reach the European export markets is ferocious.

Faced with spiralling input prices, commercial farmers have sought relentlessly to save on labour costs, through casualization, feminization and the outsourcing of contracting to labour brokers (largely to circumvent labour laws). These trends have had devastating consequences for women farm workers. Landowners’ cost-saving strategies have effectively halved the South African formal agricultural labour force in the 17-year post-apartheid period, from 1.4 million to 700,000 workers. The pool of temporary and seasonal women farm-workers pay the price through widespread food insecurity.

The current legal minimum wage is well below what a family needs to support itself (spending more than 80 per cent of income on food), and farm-worker families ironically have no access to land for their own food production. Widespread lack of access to land is in part an apartheid legacy, but it has been compounded by a misguided land reform approach focused on producing a class of black commercial farmers, which has failed dismally. The South African state finally acknowledged that food security should be a key objective of land redistribution going forward, yet there is still little evidence of a move towards placing women at the center of such a strategy.

In addition, the cost of food in rural towns is markedly higher than in urban centers, a problem compounded by the fact that, in the absence of a rural public transport system, workers are left reliant on local farm shops (owned by land owners) where they can purchase food on credit, but at a rate on average 30 per cent higher than other rural retailers. In this widespread practice, workers are often locked into debt bondage, with their outstanding debt being automatically deducted from their weekly pay.

The commercial agricultural sector in South Africa is likely here to stay, at least in the near future, and women will continue to be increasingly employed as farm labour. Hence, reform of commercial agriculture is urgently required to ensure the food security of the women workers who grow and pack the food on these farms. Given the broader land grab trend on the African continent, where large plantation style agricultural production is fast becoming the norm, reforms are doubly relevant.

"Reform of commercial agriculture is urgently required to ensure the food security of women farm workers."

In his 2011 mission to South Africa, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food concluded that while income poverty was most marked in the Limpopo province, child hunger was very low. This he attributed to the high number of women engaged in their own agricultural production given their access to land. In the context of the widespread burden of disease on rural women, such an intervention can (and in some instances already has) made a life and death difference. Women’s access to land and other productive resources is thus key to food security.

The reform of commercial agriculture should include a legislated living wage (not merely a minimum wage) that includes entitlement to a package of non-wage benefits. Farm-workers should be guaranteed access to and control of land and water for their own food production, with extension support from the state and large private farmers. The kind of support required for subsistence farming is already abundantly available in commercial farming settings.  In addition, specialized support services should promote agro-ecological food production methods.

A concomitant strategy should be to focus agrarian reform towards the realization of food security and food sovereignty. This would require a move away from the dream of merely replacing white male commercial farmers with black ones, and instead fundamentally re-envisioning an agricultural system with objectives other than profits through exports. Farm-workers and small farmers should be encouraged to form consumer, production and market co-operatives.

There is a very active public debate on the notion of a developmental state in our country. This raises important questions on the role of the state vis-à-vis the open market. The evidence is abundant that liberalization and vulnerability to the exigencies of global markets have left the poor and women in particular more food insecure. A goal of food security therefore requires active intervention by a state that positions itself more than as just a mere neutral regulator, but an active protector of the interest of the poor. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, we have not seen this from our state to date.

"Liberalization and vulnerability to the exigencies of global markets have left the poor and women in particular more food insecure."

In arguing for reforms to the commercial agriculture sector, it is important to bear in mind that land and all natural resources ultimately form the basis of social and political power, and that radical sustainable change (such as a women-focused agrarian reform program) will not happen without challenging this power. The collective actions of women in movements will be key to changing the agricultural landscape of South Africa. It is essential for rural women to mobilize to promote their own interests.  While NGOs have an important supporting role to play, long-term success will depend on the collective mobilization and leadership of rural women themselves.  

"The collective actions of women in movements will be key to changing the agricultural landscape of South Africa."

It is only when we have covered these fundamentals that we can begin to dream about food security for women farm-workers, and the tragedy of the Mmupele family will not be repeated. The realization of women’s right to food can be a strategic vehicle for the realization of women’s rights overall and an important step in challenging patriarchy.  

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