A thumbs down for SA trade poli­cies

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell

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/

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