UPDATE: Farm workers’ jobs at risk

Cane cutters speak about the issues they face during labour minister Mildred Oliphant's visit to Upper Tongaat in April.

If the traditional method of paying cane cutters by a quota system were to be scrapped, many workers could be let go and replaced by machinery.

This is the view of several farmers interviewed following the instruction by labour minister Mildred Oliphant that the quota (or umjaho) system be stopped and replaced with fixed wages.

Also read: Minister vows to protect local farm labourers

At a farm workers imbizo in the Umthobisa area of Upper Tongaat in April, Oliphant said she had conducted random farm checks and had received complaints about the umjaho system, cutters not wearing protective clothing and the hiring of foreign nationals without work permits.

Umjaho is an outcomes-based system whereby a worker is paid according to work completed and not according to the hours worked.

However, farmers told The Courier that it was the best way to get the job done.

“If the government says we must stop the umjaho system, we will be forced to let our workers go and get machinery to do the work. If we don’t have umjaho for our workers, the workers would be less productive and we will still be expected to pay them,” said one of the farmers.

The system does also allow for workers who want to cut more than their quota in a day to do so and earn more money. One farmer said his workers get paid up to R500 or R600 a day, because they cut double their quota.

“So, they get rewarded for their hard work. Is that not fair?”

Regarding the protective clothing issue, the farmers said the reason they make their workers’ pay for the clothes is that experience has taught them that when the workers quit work, they do not return the protective clothing. This is an ongoing expense they can not afford. Additionally, many of the cutters preferred not to wear the gloves – even if they are provided – because they make cutting more difficult.

The issue of using foreign workers without work permits was another hot topic. The farmers agreed that despite the high unemployment rate in the Ilembe region they struggled to find locals willing to cut cane.

“If people do not want to work on my farm I have to make a plan to get the work done. The cane will not cut itself and the farm needs to be productive,” said a farmer who asked not to be named.

Oliphant said workers had complained of being underpaid. However, SA Canegrowers economic research manager Richard Nicholson said the 2015/16 Labour Productivity Survey showed that on average, growers on the North Coast have been paying minimum wage or higher. It also shows the weighted average monthly wage per labourer was R5 138 per hectare. Therefore, average wages earned per hectare in a drought-affected season like 2015/16 were higher than the net return for the grower. The average monthly wage and bonus earned was R 3208.32 for the 2015/16 season.

This is 33% higher than the minimum wage for that season.

The survey showed that 28% of the costs of growing sugar cane are attributed to farm staff. Staff are therefore the single greatest cost incurred on a farm.

Where workers are paid an hourly rate, they are often paid above the minimum rate.

Difficulty may arise when, for example, workers are paid on task (umjaho) and the worker does not meet the required task to fulfill the minimum wage criteria. In these cases farmers would still need to pay minimum wage despite a worker falling short of his or her daily task.

However, more common is where workers are incentivised to do more than the minimum task and in doing so can earn well above a minimum or basic wage. A cutter can earn double (or more) the minimum wage level due to their extra efforts.

>>  Expect to find the latest trends in Health, Wellness and Beauty in Ballito.

>> Meet the top players in the North Coast property industry. See our Property People feature.

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