issue 254 - April 1994
Foot in the door
Domestics fight servility and the sack
Margaret nhlapo has a tough job as a South African Domestic Workers Union (SADWU) organizer. She covers Germiston and neighbouring white working-class towns outside Johannesburg, which are strongholds for the extreme right wing.
‘I think people are taking revenge on domestic workers,’ she says, referring to increased violence against them. She recalls the woman who visited the Union office, terrified that her employers wanted to kill her, though she had no firm evidence. Some weeks later she was found shot dead in the street. Margaret has scores of reports of rapes during 1993, but a combination of the victims’ terror and lack of police interest means that the culprits always get away. She worries about the vulnerability of domestics to intimidation as the election campaign hots up.
The dawn of the ‘new South Africa’ is bringing changes, albeit slowly. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act affords domestics limited statutory protection for the first time and is seen by the union as a ‘foot in the door’. The SADWU office in Cape Town reports regular calls from more enlightened or image-conscious employers, checking out the Act’s implications. Other bosses have greeted the legislation with a wave of dismissals. In Natal SADWU says hundreds of their members have been sacked – and the Union’s membership represents only a tiny fraction of this atomized workforce.
‘Employers are frightened. They don’t know what the act means,’ says Bonisiwe, a SADWU organizer in Durban. ‘But on our side it is just nothing,’ she adds. ‘Hours are still too long. They say twelve hours a day; we say eight hours. They say five and a half days a week; we say five days. We also need a Wages Act and a monthly minimum of 500 rands (about $150). The average here is probably about 250 rands.’
The fight for a minimum wage will probably sharpen if the election of an ANC-dominated government increases popular expectations. It could also lead to still more sackings.
‘People should pay for the hours they can afford,’ replies Laura Best, from Black Sash, the human-rights organization. She says the character of domestic work is changing. Fewer whites are employing servants to enhance their status and fewer domestics are employed on a live-in basis. ‘Most newly-built houses in the suburbs don’t even have servants’ quarters,’ she says.
This view is shared by Florie de Villiers, SADWU’s national president, who hopes lost jobs will be replaced through the new Government’s reconstruction programme. She also acknowledges that the union has had a particular problem dealing with domestics who are employed by black families, and are often especially badly paid. ‘Domestic workers must have the same protection as all other workers,’ she insists.
There are signs that many are abandoning a long tradition of servility. Organizers of a recruitment drive by the ANC’s Johannesburg East Branch report that domestics are signing up in droves.
The US Secretary of Commerce has claimed an exclusive patent monopoly over genetic material from a Guaymi woman from Panama. Her blood was taken without her consent at a Panama hospital in 1990. The US continues to pressurize countries of the South to agree to the patenting of all life forms, while insisting that ‘life forms’ refers only to plants and ‘non-human animals’.
The US Government currently has 160 acquisitions of human origin awaiting patent claims. Widespread collection from humans is occurring in Columbia. A highly funded US-based organization, the Human Genome Diversity Project (HUGO), set up to map human genetic structure, has identified around 700 ‘endangered’ indigenous groups of people and is collecting gene samples from them.
On the rocks
Theft from the Petrified Forest
The Painted Desert in Arizona is one of the world’s largest treasure chests of petrified wood. Formed 225 million years ago the wood has become a semi-precious stone with the impregnation of silica in logs over time. One of the largest logs is nearly 11 metres long and weighs almost 40 tons.
Polished segments of petrified wood have startling, crystal-like patterns with spectacular colours and can be turned into a range of objects from earrings to paperweights. A chunk the size of a loaf of bread can fetch several hundred dollars.
The plunder of this desert treasure – which has been going on since early this century – has reached crisis proportions. A recent study in demarcated areas showed that 16,439 kilos of petrified wood disappeared – about 1.6 kilos for every visiting car.
Nearly one million people from all over the world visit the Petrified Forest every year. Rangers encourage them to watch a film about the origins of the forest, patiently addressing each audience with the conservation message. The entire perimeter of the park has been fenced and ‘mined’ with motion detectors. At park exits vehicles are spot-checked by an armed ranger. Fines for stealing the wood start at $275 for a few ounces.
But superstition seems to be the best way of stopping the haemorrhage. About three packages a week of returned wood are received by rangers accompanied by a guilt-stricken letter.
‘Kept in the glove compartment of van, which got into an accident. Then my sister stayed with us and fell and I had to pay the medical bills. I think it’s the rock,’ says a typical letter displayed in the park museum. Another admits: ‘I am writing this in hopes of easing my conscience and saving the most important thing in my life, my marriage. I hid the bits in my bra and my husband keeps telling me it was theft and a very un-Christian thing to do. I am afraid that because of it my marriage is on the rocks.’
Another writer goes through a catalogue of misfortune: ‘Some time ago on a family trip through the Petrified Forest I made the grave mistake of taking a rock in direct defiance of posted signs and laughing silently. Since that fateful day I lost my job, the pipes in my house exploded, my wife was in an auto accident, and I was hospitalized with a bad back and began losing hair. Our first child was born prematurely and is still not potty trained.’
But the power of guilt is best demonstrated by this excerpt: ‘I read some of these letters and I went out and got into the car and put all the wood back... except one little chip. Now I realize that one little chip does make a difference. I am sending the chip back.’
Geoffrey Johnson / Gemini
BIANCA CASTILLO / CAMERA PRESS
The colour of money
‘Environmentally-conscious’ consumers in the rich world have created a growing niche market for organic and naturally-coloured cottons. The latter varieties came about as a result of five thousand years of agricultural experiments by indigenous communities in Central America. Along comes an entrepreneur like Sally Fox who gets her seeds for dyeing free from a collection held by the US Department of Agriculture, tinkers with them for a few years and slaps patents on two coloured varieties – brown and green – which don’t differ significantly from the varieties she started off with. She has the legal right to exclude others from selling her varieties, or reproducing, importing or exporting them without permission. So should a Central American farmer request some of the seeds from a seed bank, the request would have to be turned down.
Glut devalues ‘retirement tree’
Grenadians don’t have pension funds; they have nutmegs. The tree takes a long time to mature, but then produces prolifically for at least a century. All the farmer has to do, so the theory goes, is wait for the nutmegs to fall down and take them to market.
Over 7,000 farmers in this Caribbean island of 90,000 people produce nutmegs, most on small plots. As befits the nutmeg’s nickname – the retirement tree – the average age of these producers is between 60 and 70. Younger Grenadians are not drawn much by agriculture and are leaving the island at the rate of 2,000 a year.
Nutmegs traditionally provided a steady income. Most were exported at a reasonable price to Germany and the Netherlands, and the farmers could expect a modest pre-Christmas bonus from the Grenada Co-operative Nutmeg Association.
Not any more. The current price the farmers receive is 30 Eastern Caribbean cents (about 10 US cents) per pound, the worst for 25 years. In 1989 it was five times more. The Co-operative is about $3.75 million in the red and had to borrow money from the Government to pay the farmers anything at all last Christmas.
The culprit, says Grenada, is Indonesian structural adjustment. Indonesia produces about 75 per cent of the world’s nutmegs and exports mostly to the US. Grenada, the ‘spice isle’, produces the rest. In 1987 the two countries got together, formed a nutmeg cartel, agreed to fix export volumes and prices and saw their earnings take off. But in May 1990 the Indonesian Government restructured the country’s producer group, removed its export monopoly and ditched the cartel. The official line was that cartels had no place in a deregulated economy where market forces were at play.
The Grenadians took another view. They accused US spice importers and the US Government of pressuring Indonesia to drop the cartel in order to gain access to an International Monetary Fund credit package.
With the agreement gone, Indonesia flooded the market and prices plummeted from $7,000 a ton to $2,000 within a year. Delighted commodity brokers were no longer faced with a minimum price policy and could play the two countries off against each other. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 Grenada lost an important market.
The nutmeg crisis has led to desperate measures. Thousands of tons of surplus stock have been burned in a bid to restore prices. There has been talk of uprooting the ‘retirement tree’ to make way for non-traditional exports like soursop and breadfruit. Grenada’s depressed rural communities are suffering serious hardship; prices for bananas and cocoa have also declined steeply. Liberalization, it seems, has cracked the nut and put an end to Grenadian farmers’ dreams of a comfortable old age.
James Ferguson / Latin America Bureau
In a parliamentary exchange South Africa’s President F W De Klerk attacked Tony Leon from the Democratic Party (DP) for not understanding the nature of poverty in the country. ‘He (Leon) never played on a farm with young blacks as I did. None of them (DP MP’s) were really ever friends with blacks as we who grew up that way were. We understand the masses of South Africa. The DP does not.’
Tony Leon was quick to counter attack with the disclosure that he too ‘ran barefoot with the farm children every December holiday from the age of eight to eleven’.
South African Labour Bulletin vol 17 no 6
Nestlé woos China
With concerned consumers agitating against its mercenary peddling of baby-milk formula, the Swiss multinational Nestlé keeps searching out new pastures. The latest is China, where it is still relatively unknown. It has sent a pair of agronomists to encourage coffee cultivation among the Dai tribe in the mountainous southern Chinese province of Yunnan. And in the far northern province of Heilongjiang, Nestlé has jump-started a dairy industry.
Currently 6,000 local farmers provide milk for the company. Average herd size: 1.2 cows. Each day now Nestlé Dairy Farm offers tastes of sweets, instant coffee and other products to more than 10,000 consumers throughout China. It’s pushing for brand recognition by sponsoring television talent searches and painting competitions. Students in Canton’s classrooms use Nestlé-provided materials on the importance of a good diet and the need to brush and floss teeth.
Far Eastern Economic Review vol 157 no 1
A hope and a snip
A Chinese woman, acting on the advice of a soothsayer, cut off her husband’s penis while he slept, in the belief that he would grow an improved one that would restore their marriage, officials reported in an article on crimes of superstition in the northern province of Heilongjiang.
The Guardian 19 January 1994
‘Let me be free – free to travel, free to stop, free to follow the trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my father, free to think, talk and act for myself, and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty...’
Hin-mut-too-wah-lat-kekht / Chief Joseph Nez Rerce, Native American
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7