It’s not common to find women as cane cutters. It is more common to find them in somewhat ‘invisible’ jobs, which are the result, on one hand, of being deemed low-skilled (and effectively low-paid) occupations, usually confined to field operations like planting, weeding and cleaning fields, and, on the other, that are jobs first to be affected by outsourcing and casualisation practices, which basically destroy formal employment. Therefore, workers under such condition, tend to become invisible.
A visit to field operations in the Dalton area, near Pietermaritzburg, where the Noodsberg and UCL mills are located, showed a contrast to this common occurrence. According to local sources, cane cutting in the area attracts roughly the same number of male as female workers. In the particular case visited, there were about 30 cane cutters, 17 males, 13 females.
The cane cutters’ daily cut & stack task fluctuates between 7 to 8 tonnes of cane, that, depending on the cane, is cutting rows of between 125-135 metres. The cutters begin their work day at 6 am, until 2:45 pm, on a daily rate of ZAR 83.00 (USD 9.00). However, cutters said that not everyone is able to complete the task, and their pay is then reduced accordingly.
A positive factor is that interviewed cutters said they are directly employed by the mill, avoiding contractors – which in South Africa are known as labour brokers. This contributes to workers obtaining benefits such as sick leave, bonus for productivity, four-month maternity leave through the national insurance scheme, and holidays.
Many of the women cane cutters appeared with strange – to this writer – red faces. Asked about it, they said it was ibomvu. Ibomvu is a red clay/soil paste used by both women and men in traditional ceremonies of Xhosa and Zulu groups. However, because its qualities, many women (not men) working in the fields use it as a sunscreen protection. The red clay is freely found in many areas and is mixed with water to form such paste, which then becomes a quite inexpensive protection. In places where not freely available, it can be bought at ZAR 10 per 500 grams.
The visit to field operations was part of the IUF Global Sugar project in Kenya and South Africa, supported by the Social Justice Fund of the Canadian Auto Workers (SJF-CAW)
See videos on the IUF Sugar Workers Channel on YouTube:
Many thanks to Sihle Silinda, who provided information on the use of ibomvu. Sihle also contributed to an article on women workers in Darnall: South Africa: A view to women working in the Sugar Sector