While their labour is deemed essential under the Covid-19 emergency, farmworkers are not considered important enough to be provided with safe transport.
28 farmworkers who were travelling in an open truck were involved in a tragic accident on Tuesday morning. Initially, the Western Cape Police Service reported that six people had been killed and 11 severely injured but by the evening, three had succumbed to their injuries, bringing the total number of fatalities to nine.
The cause of the accident is currently being investigated, while the Western Cape Police Service said they are investigating a case of culpable homicide. It is suspected that the driver of the cargo truck fell asleep at the steering wheel and lost control of the vehicle. Mpumelelo Lubisi (44), the organiser of the Labour Community Media Forum (LCMF) told Elitsha that accidents like this are not uncommon in the agricultural sector where farmworkers endure poor working conditions and are transported in cattle trucks. The LCMF is a platform for workers and the community in De Doorns to discuss issues that affect them.
“Accidents like this generally take place every harvesting season when the demand and pressure for produce is at its highest. Every year we see the death of farmworkers in their numbers travelling to or from work in open trucks. Workers are transported as goods and this accident was long coming. It’s not the first and it won’t be the last,” said Lubisi
The Agricultural Worker’s Empowerment Trade Union Council (AWETUC), which represents workers in the agricultural sector, has called for a thorough investigation with full disclosure of the roadworthiness of the vehicles involved and if both truck drivers have valid licenses. AWETUC has also questioned the wisdom of transporting a big group of people on an open truck during this COVID-19 pandemic since social distancing rules cannot be observed.
According to the Women on Farms Project (WFP), the farming sector primarily relies on “cheap seasonal, increasingly female, insecure labour which is usually transported in from neighbouring areas on overcrowded, poorly-fitted, low-sided open trucks; needless to say there are no seat belts.” The accident according to the organisation illustrates one of the many problems with the structure of commercial agriculture in South Africa. The WFP has called for the government to introduce and enforce strict provisions for the safe and dignified transport of workers.
The Food and Allied Workers Union’s spokesperson, Dominique Swartz, said that even though workers do raise their concerns about employers exposing them to hazardous conditions, many employers remain contemptuous and prefer to cut costs rather than spend money on the safety of their workers. “We condemn this but it is difficult and many other issues overlap with labour inspectors’ duties pertaining to health and safety,” she said. Swartz stated that it is the responsibility of the company to see to it that the transport is fit and properly maintained, and that the driver is alert, competent, and knowledgeable about safety issues of being on the road.
Meanwhile, the Congress of South African Trade Unions in the Western Cape said that labour inspectors from the Department of Employment and Labour should make regular visits to farms to ensure compliance with health and safety standards of transportation.