One of South Africa’s biggest tomato producers, ZZ2, is accused of having a COVID-19 prevention strategy that infringes on the human right of its employees. The strategy entails workers being placed at campsites on the farms.
The employees say they have limited movement and are not allowed to get around unsupervised, until the lockdown is lifted.
There are also allegations that workers have been threatened with expulsion if they visit their homes.
Workers stationed at various farms that are owned by ZZ2 across Limpopo say they have not seen their families since the start of the lockdown. This, as the company told them that they should not go anywhere, to prevent contracting the COVID-19 and spreading it on the farms.
They say since March, they have been only allowed to leave farm premises once every week when company buses ferry them to the nearest shopping complex to buy essentials.
One of the workers says the situation is hard on her and her young children.
“Ever since the lockdown was announced in March, we have not been to our homes. It is hard and they say if you leave for a funeral or anything else, you should not come back because there is still the coronavirus.”
Another worker says that the residential units are in a bad state. The workers allege that they sleep on the cold floor as there are no beds.
“They take us to town one every week and give us a limited time to buy all that we need and then go back to the camp. The conditions at the campsite are horrible; we sleep in over crowed rooms. We queue to charge our phones, to take a shower as well as to cook. We sleep on the floor, there are no sponges or anything and it is so cold.”
Other ZZ2 employees say they are only tolerating the conditions because they don’t want to lose their jobs.
“I last son my child in March, others left their infants with neighbours; they don’t even know if they are safe. The other day they told us that if you speak to someone or take something from someone through the gate, you will be fired. They say if you join a union, you will get fired. The situation is very hard, I just bear it because I have no other option and I need the job.”
Community leader in the Tzaneen farming area, Malesela Pilusa, says the workers insist that the conditions are oppressive and infringe on their human rights.
“The previous week there was one lady who I found on the side of the street, she wants to bury her mother and she was told that she must not come back to work. Schools have been opened and children of 13 years are allowed to walk around wearing their masks while their parents are still locked there; who is supposed to take care of these children who, is supposed to go to school?”
ZZ2 CEO Tommy Van Zyl says there has never been a threat of termination of employment. Van Zyl also says limitations on movement are only meant to keep all employees safe from COVID-19.
“We gave people a choice, if you are on the farm they you remain here until the lockdown is relaxed. If you go home you have to stay there until the lockdown is relaxed. So at the moment we have close to 800 people who are staying at home and still get paid and then we have about 7 000 people on the farm and working. If you want to go home, you’re free to go but the protocol then if you want to come back must be enacted. We have no reason other than the COVID-19 to compartmentalise people and to make sure that this virus is not spread.”
Van Zyl has also denied allegations that the workers residences are in a bad condition.
“We are trying our best over a long time to invest in improved facilities for our people and I think it is not true that our people are living in inhumane conditions. Obviously when you have a situation that is not full normal we have to make a lot of sacrifices, but we do our best to create a home for our people.”
ZZ2 is one of the biggest producers and exporters of tomatoes and avocadoes in Africa.