XENOPHOBIA ON THE FARMS: INTERVIEW

by Jul 26, 2022Amandla Issue 82, Articles

My name is Denia Jansen and I’m part of Mawubuye Land Rights Movement. We are in alliance with CSAAWU, the farm workers’ union. My daily work is working with workers, especially seasonal workers and community members, struggling for land. Much of the work I do is out of the Rural Legal Centre based in Robertson.

Amandla!: Has xenophobia been a factor where you organise?

Denia Jansen: Xenophobic violence has been a reality in the rural areas, especially in relation to the growing number of foreign workers employed on the farm. It was an issue in the 2012/13 farm workers uprising, particularly in De Doorns. Farmers used migrant and unemployed workers to scab for striking workers. Since the uprising, farmers have increasingly used migrant workers, and in the Langeberg area we see the first xenophobic attacks in 2016.

Clashes between workers from Zimbabwe and Lesotho in Mkhabela Township, Robertson, W.Cape. There are some labour brokers who will only work with Zimbabweans and some will only work with Lesotho workers. You can see how they act to divide migrant workers.

Local workers were told by the bosses we cannot employ you; you work too slow; we cannot afford to pay you the minimum wage. At that stage it was R18 and was increasing to over R20 an hour. Migrant workers are prepared to work for less. So there was the clash already between migrant and local workers.

A!: What was the background to the xenophobic attacks of 2016?

DJ: Migrant workers mainly live in informal settlements and the backyards of township residents. Most of them are undocumented.  It’s a benefit for farm owners to work with undocumented workers because they are very scared. They don’t complain about wages, about the hours they are working. They don’t complain about overtime, because if you complain, you will be reported to the authorities and will be fired. And there is no need for you to pay UIF and other benefits. Local workers, who were employed on the farms for many years, initiated the clashes against migrants. The clashes came when the farm owners were picking up migrant workers, leaving local workers on the side of the road. You can imagine how the resentment grows. Some of the local workers tried to meet with the leaders of the migrant workers, but they were not willing to meet. So if there is no possibility of talks, this spills to violence. This is what happened in 2016.

We in Mawubuye and CSAAWU tried to intervene by saying, “we are all farm workers; we are all paid under the belt; we all are poor. So why are we fighting with each other?” But it’s really difficult to organise because these migrant workers are not organised in any organisation in any union. So, it makes it difficult to talk with them and start discussing the ssues that they are worried about.

A!: What are the challenges to organising them?

DJ: The problem of organising migrants is two-fold. On the one side, they are really scared, especially since they do not have documentation. So when we approach them to start talking about the union, they are not willing even to talk. Farm owners will say that if you are in a union, we don’t need you on the farm. They are scared to be deported back to the country where they are coming from. They are very scared. I don’t think it is because they don’t see the importance of being organised. In their home countries there are unions and other organisations which they might have been part of. But on the other side, it’s also our organisations who find it difficult or don’t want to take the trouble of organising migrants, because it’s not easy work. It takes some time to gain their trust. They don’t trust anyone. So, sometimes it’s them and sometimes it’s us who are not willing to walk the extra mile, to be patient, to organise, discuss and educate.

A!: What is the background to the recent clashes between Zimbabwean and Lesotho workers?

DJ: Take Mkhabela. It’s a poor township on the outskirts of Robertson, where many farm workers live. It is quite divided. Lesotho workers live higher on the mountainside of the township; Zimbabweans live in their area. Labour brokers enforce divisions. There are some labour brokers who will only work with Zimbabweans and some will only work with Lesotho workers. You can see how they act to divide migrant workers. Already the local workers are far away from being employed by the labour brokers because the farm owner will tell the labour broker, “I want only Lesotho workers because they are hard workers, and they don’t care about pay and hours”.

Zimbabwean workers are much more educated and are beginning to push to earn the same amount as South African workers. So there is a division between the Zimbabwean and Lesotho workers, and the labour brokers and the commercial farmers play a big role in these divisions.

A!: What has been the response of Mawubuye and CSAAWU to these divisions amongst farm workers?

DJ: Some of the workers, including those from Robertson and seasonal workers, say it is the migrant workers who get the jobs and who earn the money. “We as local workers, we are at home, unemployed and we don’t want the migrant workers in our midst. We want to get rid of them.” We as leaders in Mawubuye and CSSAWU have to say, “look, we can’t as the poor fight each other. We should look at the main issue where xenophobia is coming from. Who’s behind it? It’s not the migrant workers who steal our work. Before they have come here, we already have been unemployed. We were already poor. We were already landless.”

We try to educate our members to say we should be patient. And we should see that all workers have the same rights. Are we now saying that migrant workers or immigrants don’t have rights? The problem of immigrants is not just isolated to SA. It’s a global issue. So we try to educate and say we should fight the bosses, the commercial farmers because they are the ones who exploit the migrant workers to pay them a lower wage. We should not fight each other; we should fight the real problem. We should fight those who sit behind the issue of xenophobia, who benefit out of xenophobia, who benefit out of low wages.

A!: Are you making any progress in overcoming these tensions between workers?

DJ: In February this year, there were clashes between Zimbabwean and Lesotho workers and we were not sure whether we should intervene. We started discussing with the migrant workers and we said let’s sit around the table and talk about xenophobia and violence and what we can do to stop things. Several times we have met with the leaders and the police to make sure that these clashes do not lead to any deaths.

Since then, we see migrant workers coming to the Rural Legal Centre to complain about how they are being treated by the farmers. In one case a migrant worker was earning just R600 per week. Because of our role and visibility during the clashes they are starting to trust us in Mawubuye and CSAAWU. We have also started working with migrant women. So I think we are making inroads in starting to raise awareness, starting to get the trust of migrant workers.

Even though it is difficult to get migrant workers to join the union, we can start migrant worker forums to make sure they have a platform to talk from.

A!: What is your thinking in terms of addressing the problems of xenophobia and divisions amongst farm workers?

DJ: We have discussed the need to do much more awareness-raising amongst migrant workers. But also, we have to push the government to have better policies for migrants and immigrants. I think we have to target government much more, because when the Department of Labour came here, they didn’t have any solution for these fights. They called the Human Rights Commission in, who themselves are not very effective.

We asked the people from the Department of Labour, “what is your policy to prevent these clashes? What is your engagement with commercial farmers to deal with their practices in fermenting the clashes?” And they couldn’t answer us?” They didn’t even invite us to these stakeholder meetings, because we asked the relevant questions, and they didn’t have any answers.

I think our target must be the government in terms of their policies and how they regulate labour brokers. Labour brokers are the middlemen, and they are causing a lot of havoc. We should have a platform where we can start talking with migrant workers. We also have to engage with labour brokers. Because if we don’t do that, we will have another outbreak. And I think we should do solidarity work around the migrant workers and their issues. We must work on our visibility. They have to know we are there.

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