A thumbs down for SA trade policies
South African trade unions fought a long, hard battle, which they ultimately lost, against market deregulation and widespread trade liberalisation. They were publicly vindicated last week.
The damaging effects of these government policies are outlined in an International Labour Organisation (ILO)-sponsored report on farms and farm labour. But the report also provides a number of suggested solutions for what should be seen as one of the major threats to the wellbeing of the country.
Food, water and shelter are three essentials to sustain life. And one of the unintended consequences of policies based on government’s wishful thinking has been to threaten South Africa’s food security.
Over the years, trade union concerns about these policies, which have been echoed in this column, grew, as did news of increasing evictions from farms. A comprehensive, independent study was clearly needed and the ILO agreed to sponsor it.
The 273-page report was completed in February and it was finally released last week. It lays to rest many of the myths and prejudices that have surrounded the agricultural sector – and it raises critical warning signals.
Overseen by Margareet Visser of the University of Cape Town and Stuart Ferrer of the University of KZN, it reveals the unintended and damaging consequences of government’s trade policies. And, in the process, it vindicates the labour movement’s warnings that these policies would result in job losses and the destruction of productive capacity.
But the warnings were swept aside, with government ministers predicting growth rates of 6% and more. According to one economist, such claims amounted to “a cascade of improbabilities”.
The unions concurred. And soon the textile and garment industry became the most obvious casualty.
But there were also severe consequences in the agricultural sector that were largely ignored – farm workers were increasingly impoverished, with many losing tenure on farms.
The loss of jobs and the evictions resulted in a polarisation of attitudes. Cause and effect were often oversimplified and politicised.
Yet an obvious consequence of government’s trade policies was the relative flood of subsidised food. As the ILO report notes, the estimate for producer support to South African farmers is about 3%, as opposed to 20% in developed — OECD — countries.
At the same time, the collective bargaining power of producers was severely sapped; farmers found themselves largely at the mercy of local and international retailers. To remain viable in the face of such competition, they had to drastically reduce farm costs.
So farmers turned to outsourcing and casual labour. And when the government introduced its wellintentioned Extension of Security of Tenure Act in 1997, along with subsequent amendments, more farm evictions followed.
This resulted in what Visser and Ferrer referred to as a “stalemate”: farm workers need a living wage of more than R150 a day — it is now R120.32 — which most farmers cannot afford.
There is also a plethora of other problems, ranging from migration to housing, sanitation and transport. The report deals with them and suggests remedies.
“And we intend to keep the debate alive,” says ILO local office director, Vic van Vuuren.
This seems critical at a time when local government elections are looming and the government is concerned about waning support.
In such circumstances, it is always tempting for politicians to put vote-catching ahead of sensible policy formulation. Food security is too important for this to happen. The full report is available at: http://www.ilo.org/ addisababa/information-resources/publications/