National conference: The future of farm workers in South Africa

Farm workers are an integral component of the economy and the food system in South Africa. Yet they are invariably poor, food insecure, marginalised and vulnerable to exploitation. Pro-farm worker legislation since 1994 has provided some protection, but it has also been associated with violations of labour rights and an accelerating pace of evictions and casualisation. Moreover, because agricultural employment is concentrated at specific times of year, seasonal farm workers face an under-reported crisis of underemployment and seasonal hunger. The future is uncertain, and the issues facing farm workers vary from place to place. Even within South Africa, farm workers in the Cape winelands experience very different challenges to farm workers in Limpopo. But there are also opportunities. The farm workers’ strike of 2012–13 revealed the power of organised protest, while the current discourse around Land Expropriation Without Compensation (LEWC) gives hope that (women) farm workers will finally enjoy access to land and tenure security.

The conference takes a South Africa-wide perspective, and will highlight the centrality of farm workers in the national economy and food system, at a moment when academic and policy attention is focused on other actors such as farmers (commercialisation of smallholders), markets (‘supermarketisation’ and big food), and consumers (food safety, obesogenic diets).