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SA Human Rights Commission probes deaths of Northern Cape farmworkers

27 January 2023

Cape Town - The tragic deaths of five seasonal farmworkers in the Northern Cape apparently due to an ongoing heatwave in the province has once again put under the spotlight their working conditions, and renewed calls for farmers to put human life before profits.

In total, eight people were confirmed dead, the latest on Monday, as temperatures reached around a scorching 43oC.

The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) said it would investigate, among others, claims that the workers’ requests for water while working in the heat were not heeded, while Northern Cape SAPS spokesperson Cornelis Prins said they were investigating four inquest dockets – one in Augrabies and three in the Kakamas area.

“Investigation will be done for the inquests and then only will a decision be made by a magistrate regarding the cause of death and if an official inquest court must be held to determine if someone may be held responsible for the deaths,” said Prins.

The incident triggered a visit by Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi to the province to engage with the affected communities.

Of the visit, Nxesi’s spokesperson, Sabelo Mali, was only able to say: “We were in Kakamas on Monday. The minister was clear that we can’t say much until such time that we receive the reports from police, because people died.

Our visit to the area was a fact-finding mission and we await the outcome of the reports.”

Women on Farms Project (WFP) director Colette Solomon said the farmworkers working under those extreme temperatures showed how desperate poor people in rural areas were for jobs, especially seasonal work.

“Given that it is a heatwave, and farmers would’ve been aware of the expected high temperatures, they should’ve taken pre-emptive measures to protect workers.

“For example, workers should’ve started working at first light, and stopped working during the hottest hours of the day, and then resumed work in the late afternoon or early evening. Workers should’ve been given sun hats, sunblock and, most importantly, access to cold water in the vineyards while they were working.

“It should never have been work, productivity and profits against all odds, even in such exceptional weather conditions. Farmers have a duty of care and responsibility to the workers who make them rich. Workers are not machines,” said Solomon.

She said while they welcomed Nxesi’s visit, they were expecting a full investigation from the department, as well as the SAHRC, calling for punitive measures and action to be taken.

SAHRC commissioner Chris Nissen said: “When you see it’s 43 degrees and climbing, you still allow people to go work in such heat... I understand that they must harvest and the fruit is at risk, but we must choose between profits and human life.”

Nissen said they would probe reports that staff had requested water while working, but these calls were not heeded.

Attempts to speak to the affected families were not successful on Thursday.

President of the Black Association of the Agriculture Sector (Bawsi), Nosey Pieterse, said: “The daily temperature is known to the nation via TV, radio and printed media.

The extreme heat in certain areas made headlines. It is obvious that employers have the responsibility to take precautionary measures to protect employees against these hazards presented by nature ... How much longer will justice be deferred to the life hereafter.”

AgriNC manager Dirk Krapohl said: “Farmers will focus more on information and communication towards their crew on drinking enough water, especially at night to be prepared for the next day. Also to take in enough water during the working day. Farmers will encourage workers to make sure they have drinking water with them at all times.”

Portfolio committee on forestry, fisheries and the environment chairperson Pogiso Modise said the approach needed to change, with those requiring medical attention attended to speedily.

“In the long run, farmers ought to take into consideration the climate change reality when they decide on what, where and how to farm. Ordinary people should be made aware of the extremity and frequency of these unfamiliar weather conditions. This education should encompass the means they can adopt in order to adapt better.

“Government, civil society, individual activists and the media alike should all play a meaningful role in engaging ordinary people on matters of weather variations.

“The reality of today’s world is that the climate has changed and all possible weather extremes are a reality, and could easily result in the loss of life.”

Source: Cape Times

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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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