Established by the Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE), Mawubuye Land Rights Forum and CSAAWU, the Rural Legal Centre has been at the forefront of vulnerable workers struggles for the last five years.
“The Rural Legal Centre acts on behalf of poor workers and is a centre where workers can come and lay their complaints about labour issues. We take up every labour issue that is possible to take up” explains Denia Jansen from the Rural Legal Centre. The centre is based in Robertson in the Western Cape and provide services to workers at no cost. The Rural Legal Centre also assists workers with access to legal representation and often partners with other organisations such as the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI)on some cases.
Jansen explains that some of the issues are simple to resolve and may just involve a phone call to an employer about an employee’s complaint. For more complicated matters, such as unfair dismissals, work injuries, evictions or unfair labour practice, these cases are referred to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). She says that it is particularly hard to resolve the cases brought by farmworkers working on commercially owned farms.
“We now have more than twenty eviction cases and most of these cases come from areas in the Langeberg Municipality. These are all farm worker evictions and most of these farm workers have worked a lifetime on these farms,” says Jansen. She says that when farm workers get evicted from farms they often don’t know where to go, but the Rural Legal Centre is there to provide support and services to ensure that farm workers are not unlawfully evicted from farms.
There is not a lot of government support for workers dealing with labour issues in the area. The closest Department of Employment and Labour office to assist workers is in Worcester, which is about 50 kms away from Robertson. The distance makes it costly for workers to travel to the Department’s offices to lay complaints. Workers often also have to wait in either the hot sun or rain to get assistance because of the long queues outside the Department’s offices. Jansen says that sometimes the Department’s office in Worcester even refers cases to the Rural Legal Centre. Jansen says that government’s cuts to the CCMA budget has made things even more challenging for workers and it is the “workers who will suffer as a result of these budget cuts.”
“We had to fight to speak!”
Representing the Rural Legal Centre, Jansen attended a stakeholder meeting hosted by the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture Land Reform and Rural Development and the Portfolio Committee on Employment and Labour about the living and working conditions of farm workers, farm dwellers and farming communities. The meeting was held on 22 July at the Hex Valley Secondary School in De Doorns.
At first, the chairperson of the meeting seemed reluctant to take questions and submissions from those in the meeting who were not on the programme. Only after a few of those in attendance, including Jansen, interrupted the meeting and persistently complained loudly were they given the opportunity to speak – but only for two minutes each. “There was a need to disrupt the meeting to make sure our voices were heard” explains Jansen. She adds, “The way that they handled the meeting shows that they have no regard for the plight of farm workers.”
Jansen then used the opportunity to present the case of Isaak Visser and his wife who had been violently evited from his farm dwelling by a private security company on behalf of the farm owner earlier in the month. Visser and his wife had since been sleeping outside in the freezing cold, their belongings had been left outside another worker’s house. “The workers have no defense against the commercial farmers and private security companies when they are being evicted. So it is easy to evict them and infringe on their rights. The alliance between the police, the municipality and the farmers are very strong,” says Jansen. She adds, “The Rural Legal Centre is the eyes of the workers.”
The chairperson of the meeting immediately put Jansen and the Visser family in touch with the relevant government officials to assist the couple. The following day, ‘the rights of the family was restored and they were able to move back home. The farm owner contributed a R4 000. But the question is, should we always have to fight like this for the departments to act? The Rural Legal Centre is a powerful tool for workers. We worked as a team to make sure that the rights of workers are protected. Saturday when the lawyers called me, I was so overwhelmed about the victory.”
Jansen adds, “Workers only see politicians when it is election time. But after elections, farm workers don’t see any politicians. So at these kind of stakeholder meetings we should make sure that every time we raise our voices and expose these duty bearers and all these departments that claim they are on the side of farm workers.”