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Cape farm workers a 'vulnerable' group

By Judith Soal, in Cape Times,
28 May 2000

The stench from the nearby pigsty is overwhelming as you walk into eight-year-old Mavuyi Asanti's home. The walls are blackened from years of indoor fires without a chimney and in the corner Mavuyi's baby sister struggles to breathe through the smoke.

The Asantis, who live on a farm in Philippi, just 20km from Cape Town, have no electricity, no running water, no toilets and no municipal services.

Mavuyi said he wants to be a police officer when he gets older, but no one in his family had been to school for more than a few years. Although it's 11am on a school day, Mavuyi and his friends are at home, playing barefoot in the rain next to a rubbish dump.

The children are intrigued by the delegation of strangers who have come to inspect their homes and smile happily for the cameras, but they're not sure what all the fuss is about.

They don't recognise former social services MEC Peter Marais, the city's Medical Officer of Health Ivan Toms, Environment MEC Glen Adams or several national MPs, provincial MPLs and government health and welfare workers, on a visit organised by the University of Cape Town's Child Health Unit last Friday.

"We were shocked by the conditions around here when we started doing research," said the director of the Child Health Policy Institute, Maylene Shung-King.

"So we decided to arrange this trip to bring the problems to the attention of those who can do something about them."

The institute's research had shown the living conditions in the area are among the worst in the country. A nutrition survey found commercial farmworkers' children are more likely to be malnourished than those living in rural and tribal areas.

"This is ironic, given that they live on vegetable and fruit farms," said Shung-King.

Philippi also has one of the highest rates of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, caused by drinking during pregnancy. Fifteen percent of the 160 children who attend the Philippi Children's Centre have Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, compared to a worldwide rate of 0,4 percent.

Alcohol abuse and violence is rife on the farms, and many farmers still supply their workers with a bottle of wine every evening. Because the "dop" system had been outlawed, the workers now have to pay for the privilege.

"Workers become indebted to the farmers because they are given alcohol and food from the farm store on credit and then the bill is deducted from their wages at the end of the week," said Shung-King.

"Even their meagre financial rewards are ploughed back into the farmers' pockets."

Clinic staff report high levels of illness, particularly respiratory problems, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

"Although South Africa has introduced policies to protect children and workers, these policies make very little difference on farms," said Shung-King.

"Farm workers are among the most vulnerable groups in our population because they are completely dependent on the farmer for their homes and their jobs. It is very hard for them to assert their rights."

It took months for Shung-King and her colleagues to co-ordinate the schedules of the busy politicians to pull off the visit to Philippi, but by the end of the day their efforts were bearing fruit.

Local environmental health officer Hugo Urtel had served a health warning notice on the farmer who owns the property where Mavuyi lives, ordering him to improve the hygiene conditions and install proper toilets.

Marais suggested the provincial school feeding scheme be extended to include schools in Philippi, and Julinda Kruger of the Department of Social Services promised to investigate ways to help Philippi families apply for welfare grants.

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