The National Farmworker Platform, organised by Women on Farms in Cape Town, brought attention to the  lack political will to tackle the multitude of difficulties encountered by farmworkers. Concerns raised included the responsible use of pesticides, the absence of inspectors, the welfare of workers, and claims of “daily torture”, all of which participants urged the government to address.

By Tiisetso Manoko

On Monday, the National Farmworker Platform in Cape Town highlighted the pressing issues facing farmworkers, including the risks associated with pesticides, lack of inspectors, and reports of ongoing daily hardships.

“We are dying because of pesticides,” claimed Dina Ndleleni, a 61-year-old former labourer and activist from De Doorns in the Western Cape. She said her working career was cut short due to exposure to pesticides at her workplace.

‘They are bad for our health’

“I grew up on farms,” she explained. “I’ve been working on farms since I was just seven. Last year, while working, pesticides were sprayed. I started coughing and feeling pain in my chest, collapsed and was rushed to the doctor. I was diagnosed with asthma [and had to] stay at home until I reached 60 [to be able to receive an] old-age pension.”

Ndleleni added that she spent two weeks in the hospital, conscious for only two days, and her employer allegedly informed her that she could not work anymore.

“I was told to stay at home and there has been no compensation or anything, I have not been paid. I think it is important that pesticides be banned from South Africa because they are bad for us as workers. They are bad for our health,” she said.

Balancing pesticide matters

Meanwhile, Moipone Jwayi from the Rural Women’s Assembly in the Free State expressed her frustration, labelling South Africa a failed state due to a perceived lack of pesticide usage monitoring and evaluation. She criticised the government for shifting blame to unions and failing to act on workers’ concerns, especially regarding the harmful effects of pesticides, particularly on women.

In his presentation to the National Farmworker Platform, Jannie Strydom, chief executive of Agri Western Cape, emphasised the need to balance pesticide matters. He called on the government and relevant stakeholders to find alternatives to pesticides before certain ones are phased out by June 2024.

Strydom highlighted the importance of creating a conducive environment for discussions between farmers, farmworkers, and the government to safeguard human health, well-being, and sustainability.

The phasing out of pesticides

“The implications of the government’s decision to phase out certain pesticides in commercial agriculture will depend on how well it is implemented, the availability of alternative pest management methods, and farmers’ adaptability.

“Collaboration between government agencies, agricultural research institutions, and the farming community will be essential to minimise negative impacts and promote sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture,” he said.

Strydom stressed the importance of ensuring that the sector does not suffer during the phase-out of certain pesticides.

He emphasised that the health of everyone involved should be prioritised, and noted that some regions would be able to cope, while others might struggle with the transition. “Some areas may have more alternatives available or fewer pest pressure issues, while others may face challenges,” he explained.

Strydom highlighted the challenges in pest control that could arise from these changes.

Government acknowledges farmworkers’ challenges

Lumko Mtinde, special advisor to Thulas Nxesi, minister of employment and labour, assured attendees of the National Farmworker Platform that the government acknowledged the challenges faced by farmworkers. He encouraged suggestions and ideas from those in the field to help address these issues.

Thembinkosi Mkalipi, deputy director general for labour policy and industrial relations, acknowledged the financial constraints faced by the government. He explained that the department’s limited resources made it challenging to address all the concerns raised by workers and suggested exploring alternative avenues.

“We will never have more inspectors as we envisage because the competition for the public purse is too high. Some of the matters being raised do not need an inspector but a farmworker to take other avenues,” he said.

A call for responsible practices and shared responsibility

In response to the recent debates surrounding pesticide use in South Africa, Elriza Theron, advocacy and communications manager at CropLife SA, underscored the complexity of safe and sustainable food production.

“When serious matters like these arise, it can be tempting to find one single scapegoat to pin the blame on, because we all want solutions to issues that clearly need attention. But safe and sustainable food production is so much more complex than just a polarised debate of banning pesticides or not,” she said.

Theron highlighted the importance of avoiding oversimplified solutions, especially when comparing the country’s agricultural realities, crops, pests, and climatic profiles to those of Europe.

“South Africa has entirely different crops, pests and climatic profiles to that of Europe, so to compare the two agricultural realities is not feasible. What is, however, non-negotiable, is that these products must be used according to the law, which means using it exactly according to the label instructions.”

Theron stressed that adherence to the law is paramount, with products needing to be used precisely according to label instructions. She highlighted the country’s robust regulatory framework, supported by acts such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which mandates protective clothing and proper training for workers handling pesticides.

“Any person who does not comply with this, transgresses this act. In other words, the responsibility lies with the entire value chain, from manufacturer to farmworker.”

Furthermore, she emphasised shared responsibility across the entire agricultural value chain, from manufacturers to farmworkers. CropLife SA affirmed its commitment to stewardship principles, advocating for the responsible use of pesticide products and collaboration with stakeholders to ensure compliance and environmental sustainability.

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