Science in Society Archive

Global Food Trade & the New Slave Labour

How globalisation links UK’s Tesco supermarket chain to colonial-style farming in South Africa that exploits farm-workers especially women and perpetrates poverty. Sam Burcher

Colonial farmers call the shots

Fatima Shabodien is executive director of Women on Farms Project.  She came to London’s City Hall on a foggy day to describe the impact of trade, the export of food, and the changes on South African farmlands over the past ten years.  When people think of South African farms they think of subsistence farming, she said.  But the reality is predominantly commercial farming, colonial farms owned by white males and leased to a pool of black workers [1].

There are new laws in a democratic South Africa for working in agriculture. But before 1994, no laws existed to protect relationships between farmers and farm workers.   Despite this, women are forced into feudal labour practices by implication.  When a white farmer contracts a male labourer, his wife or girlfriend is expected to work for the farmer too. A farmwoman is paid less for her work than men and discriminated against as to the sort of work she can do.  She is further bound to her man because on-farm housing is tied to labour; therefore women can only be housed if they work. No housing contracts are given to farmwomen on commercial farms.

WTO encourages unequal trade

Since the WTO introduced subsidies for farmers, things have become even worse for both male and female workers.  Farmers have drastically cut back on agricultural employment and even forcibly evicted workers to avoid giving them tenure rights to land.  What were once permanent jobs have now become seasonal, and these precarious positions mainly occupied by women (see Box). Because the jobs are casual, there are no provisions for benefits such as maternity pay and sick leave, nor protective clothing from pesticides as there would have been under the usual employment contracts.

South Africa’s commercial agriculture is export oriented, and is fragile as it is open to challenges from the global market and the progressive removal of trade barriers and subsidies.  Increased competition and unfair terms of trade with highly subsidised producers in the North, along with other factors such as drought, exacerbate poor pay and working conditions, leading to poor health for farm workers.

Unequal trade regimes reinforce inequality for women and for emerging black farmers who are unable to compete with white farmers on economic terms.

Wages paid in wine

Western Cape farmers pay labourers in part or in full with alcohol.  This is known as the “tot system”, a common practice left over from slavery.  A steady stream of alcohol is given to the workers throughout the day. Not too much to make them drunk, but enough to make them dependent.  There is a legacy of alcoholism and violence around colonial style farming.  Farmwomen are encouraged to drink throughout their pregnancies, and the wine regions of the Western Cape has the highest incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).  There is no concept of leisure for farm workers, so alcohol also serves a recreational purpose. This puts farmwomen and their children in high- risk situations from violence and HIV/AIDS.

One widow’s story

Gertruida Baartman is a widow with four children and an extended family to support.  She works for six months of the year on a fruit-exporting farm in the Ceres district in the Western Cape region of South Africa. She picks, prunes and packs apples for Tesco’s supermarkets in the UK for £3.90 a day.   It’s a struggle for her to feed the family, to pay for school fees, books and uniforms. Her family subsist on a bread and potato diet. 

“Gertruida is ashamed of her struggle, her dignity is gone,” said Fatima, “and she cannot make direct eye contact with people.”  Her work is fairly isolated so she experiences none of the camaraderie or solidarity of factory workers, or a union. In her mind, she has failed her family.

According to the National Union of Farmers of Canada, rural women comprise one quarter of the world’s population [2]. And in some parts of Africa, women head 60 percent of households, where they meet almost all of the water and fuel needs and process all of the family’s foodstuffs. 

Actionaid sent a team of investigators to the Western Cape to audit Tesco’s fruit farms. (See Rotten Fruit.  Tesco profits as women workers pay a high price Together with Women on Farms Project, they focussed on the conditions of the seasonal women packers, and were shocked by the violations against these workers which include lower than the minimum wage (and men’s wages), dismal housing, job insecurity, food insecurity, and no benefits such as paid maternity and sick leave.

No protection against pesticides

Conditions on colonial farms are generally poor and the standard is worse for women. When farm inspectors are due to call, the portable toilets are put in the fields and overalls, gloves and shoes are given to the women.  As soon as the inspectors are gone, the vestments and toilets are taken away again.

Women workers claim they were given no protection against pesticide spraying and told to pick fruit from trees still wet with chemicals. Tesco refutes the claim by saying that the women Actionaid interviewed were confused.   They deny that those women worked for farms exporting to Tesco. And as far as pesticides are concerned, women workers were picking apples sprayed with water.

Women on Farms Project have defended the women taking part in Actionaid’s audit, by saying that they may not have a sophisticated world view, but they know what water is and are fully aware that their apples are put into boxes clearly marked Tesco!  While Fatima was in London she visited Tesco supermarkets to photograph the green Cape apples on the shelves, so the farmwomen in South Africa can see whom they work for, and what Tesco is.

What farmwomen want

What Women on Farms Project want is for Tesco to be honest about their dealings with the farmwomen. The farmwomen don’t want a boycott of Tesco, they need to hold onto their jobs. They are scared that if they push too much for their rights, they will lose a valuable export contract.  So despite the harsh conditions, the inequalities, and the deceptions, women on South African farms want what women all over the world want, and that is to provide for their families.

Women on Farms Project are helping women in rural areas to build their capacity to claim their rights and fulfil their needs.  But there are obstacles to organisation at even very basic levels because of patriarchal codes.  Although unionisation in agriculture has been legal since 1993, farm workers are the least organised labour sector with the lowest percentage of unionised workers.

There are good post-apartheid national laws designed to protect all farm labourers, but they were founded on a corporate model of labour that never filtered down to farmwoman or migrant worker level.  Nevertheless, Fatima’s project has successfully established a member- based organisation for farmwomen (also open to men) to build collective solidarity. It has 3 000 members and was publicly launched on National Women’s Day (South Africa) this year.

 Another strategy for alleviating exploitative trade regimes might be for South African farmwomen organisations to partner with other labourers organisations involved in fruit and wine exporting countries in the south, such as Chile.

Tesco supports the Ethical Trading Initiative baseline code, but tactical buying practices like “just-in-time” orders that create last minute price wars between suppliers have encouraged farmers to further exploit workers by shunting the costs and risks onto them. However, as Fatima points out, there is no evidence to suggest that workers would receive any better treatment without these economic pressures.

Thus, farmwomen are at the mercy of Tesco, whose directors they say, “must ensure that they take account of the likely consequences of any decisions on the interests of employees, suppliers, communities and the environment” in the workings of foreign direct investment.  And if they don’t, then it becomes the duty of governments, in the interests of global democracy, to regulate the behaviour of the transnational corporations to provide decent working and living standards for hardworking women.


UN reports less stable jobs for women

According to the UN Development Fund For Women (UNIFEM) report, Progress of the World’s Women 2005: Women, Work and Poverty, in developing countries informal labour accounts for 50-80 percent of all non-agricultural employment, and when agricultural workers are added in the figure is even greater. Women who receive a pittance for insecure employment predominantly populate this informal workforce. Cases are reported of women working 18 hours a day for wages that are insufficient to feed their families.  The report links poverty with gender inequality and unless attention is paid to strengthening women’s economic security, poverty cannot be eradicated  [3].

The UN Charter for Global Democracy, 12 Areas for Urgent Action, further highlights the regulation of corporations in the workplace.  Point 2 states that transnationals must “adhere to an international code of conduct covering agreed principles concerning human rights, the environment and core labour standards.”

Via Campesina, an international peasants group, supports rural women, and gender parity, and have called for the removal of agriculture negotiations from the WTO [4].

Article first published 14/12/05


  1. Shabodien F. The Tragedy of Farm Workers Rights Abuses in South Africa presented at the “If food could talk, hidden stories from the food chain” conference. 17th October 2005, City Hall, London. Women on Farms Project
  2. Cultivating Hope, World Rural Women’s Day –1 15th October
  3. Tranovich A. Will world leaders face the “pink collar” underclass.  Third World Resurgence Aug/Sept 05 No 180/181
  4. Women peasants say no to WTO and neoliberalism and

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