Boycott calls are simple-minded
- Ivo Vegter
- 29 Jan 2013 02:25 (South Africa)
According to Alex Duval Smith, writing in the UK Guardian, “striking workers” have issued a plea to foreign consumers to boycott South African wine, grapes and other fruit, like apples.
Like most such calls, the idea is silly. It will be counter-productive if successful, and betrays ignorance not only of the facts of the matter and the local context in South Africa, but of basic arithmetic.
For newspapers, of course, numbers are not a strong suit, and they love adding statistically useless polls to their more emotive reportage, because that way they appear to be responsive to the vox populi while their sales floor gets another click magnet to sell to advertisers. This, the Guardian did too. The number of readers who felt strongly enough about this particular boycott call to indicate they’d heed it stood at 59% when the poll closed, up from 55% a day after it was published.
The boycott call was reportedly made by Bawusa, which is the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa, one of almost 200 unions registered with the Department of Labour. It is affiliated with the Confederation of South African Workers’ Unions (Consawu), the smallest of South Africa’s four trade union federations.
Bawsi, in turn, is the Black Association of the Wine and Spirits Industry, founded in 1999 under its present leader, Reverend Nosey Pieterse. This appears to be the source of frequent confusion in the media, which often refers to Bawusa, also led by Pieterse, as the Black Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa.
Bawsi is a non-profit organisation concerned with worker empowerment and industry transformation. It appears to mean well, but in its 14-year existence it hasn’t got around to publishing any objectives or achievements.
Bawusa told reporters it represents some 6,000 out of a total of 257,000 workers it claims are employed in the wine industry. The Guardian itself notes that some 500,000 farm workers are employed in the Western Cape altogether. In short, with 1.2% of the labour force paying dues, Bawusa isn’t exactly the sole and undisputed standard-bearer of farm workers’ rights.
(In its defence, in communist circles it is derided for being a bunch of capitalist sell-outs. To be fair, so are the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP. The denouncers, who go by the grand moniker of Workers International Vanguard League, aren’t exactly a major democratic power bloc, and set a record by garnering the lowest ever total of 672 votes in the last South African election in which they qualified to take part, in 1999.)
But back to the boycott. While emotionally satisfying to both dissatisfied workers and judgemental consumers in the rich world, it will be counter-productive for two reasons.
First, if farms earn less, they are likely to pay less. Not because they want to pay less, but because only successful businesses can afford to employ workers at high wages. You can’t pay someone if the money simply isn’t there. Chances are, a boycott call will result in layoffs. Some farmers may even, to coin a phrase, sell the farm.
Now the attentive reader might think I’m just repeating stock capitalist rhetoric because I’m an ideologue, and think the Guardian is a sanctimonious rag with socialist tendencies. That’s true, but immaterial.
Let’s do what that august newspaper didn’t bother to do: some elementary arithmetic. We’ll use their numbers, lest we be accused of being unfair to them.
The Guardian claims workers are demanding £10.62 (about R150) a day, more than double the current wage of £4.92 (about R70).
You’ll be lucky to pay this sort of amount for a taxi in London, so to Guardian readers this sounds like a pittance. However, the same is not true for Grabouw, De Doorns or the Hex River Valley. In rural South Africa, the cost of living is rather lower than in the sort of post codes Guardian journalists and readers lunch. Farm wages are indeed low, and workers are entirely entitled to feel aggrieved and try to negotiate better pay, but it doesn’t help to stir up the outrage of well-heeled Westerners by citing low-sounding wage numbers entirely out of context.
Instead of comparing the real cost of living in London and De Doorns, here’s the context the Guardian did add, perhaps in an effort to cast the farmers who pay such meagre wages as filthy rich exploiters of the working class: the fruit and wine sector is worth £850 million (R12 billion) a year.
As it turns out, this bit of supposed context is not very flattering to the Guardian.
As we’ve noted, Bawusa claims there are 257,000 wine farm workers, and by the Guardian’s own account the fruit and wine sector as a whole employs 500,000 workers in the Western Cape.
There are 249 working days in an average year. Multiply the daily wage demand, the annual working days, and the number of workers together, and we get somewhere north of £1.3 billion, or R18.7 billion in Mandela money.
How, pray tell, does the Guardian propose a £850-million a year industry pay a £1.3-billion wage bill? The newspaper’s editors may just have thought this discrepancy poses no problem, since most of its readers are probably employed by the government, which just prints money when it runs out, but it is rather harder to conjure up a few extra billions if you’re a farmer in the developing world.
Perhaps this financial feat can be achieved by, for example, only paying workers for six months of the year, and leaving them destitute when they’re not needed on the farm. But even then, farmers won’t have much left over to pay for fertiliser, pesticide, seed, farm machinery, winery maintenance, cheese-and-cracker shindigs for British tourists, artsy labels, and the efficient global distribution network that gets South African wines, grapes and apples to suburban London supermarkets at prices that are competitive with the equally fine produce of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Australia and other places where fruit trees and vineyards thrive.
On the face of it, then, the Guardian’s uncritical acceptance of the claims by unions on behalf of workers appears to fall short of the sort of basic journalistic diligence that doesn’t even require reporters on the ground.
The second reason why a boycott call is counter-productive is that it creates a perverse incentive for farmers not to raise wages unless and until all their peers do so too. This is a reversal of the tragedy of the commons problem. What good does it do you agree to a raise if you’re still a South African wine farmer subject to a boycott by nurse Nellie Whiffnose from Hammersmith, who read her Guardian and jumped at the chance to appear “conscious” to her bridge club peers by “doing something” on behalf of 6,000 union members 6,000 miles away locked in a wage dispute about which she knows, frankly, nothing?
Of course, this sort of disincentive for farmers to reach individual deals with their workers, while disadvantaging both farmers and workers, plays right into the hands of the unions, which openly seek to consolidate their power by disempowering workers and bargaining only on behalf of the collective.
A boycott that forces farmers to recognise them as the sole worker representatives with the (theoretical) power to call it off suits unions just fine. After all, the vast majority of the farm workers of the Western Cape chose not to join any unions at all. Harnessing clueless foreign newspapers to convince their equally ill-informed readers to boycott products in the hope of extorting collective agreements from farmers is a great way for small-time unions to pressure reluctant workers to organise, too, lest they find themselves excluded from collective bargaining agreements.
Don’t get me wrong. Unions have every right to exist, even if they represent a minority of workers. While often claiming credit for improvements in living standards they did little to bring about, and routinely pushing propaganda against the very capitalism that did, unions can play an important role in helping employees negotiate fair wages and working conditions.
Workers also have every right to go on strike, even if the strike is “unprotected”. Especially if the strike is unprotected, in fact, since protection arguably infringes on the rights of employers to respond to unreasonable demands by agreeing to discontinue the employment relationship and instead incur the cost of finding other job-seekers who are more keen on paying work and more suited to the needs of the employer.
But none of this makes a simplistic boycott call a good idea, other than that it might give the union greater powers of extortion to wield against employers and non-members alike. A thoughtless boycott, which inevitably persists long after the actual strike has been called off, can only harm consumers, producers, and the very workers the unions claim to represent.
The Guardian’s reporters might have reached the same conclusion, if only they could be bothered to test their emotive responses and ideological biases against the basic arithmetic they were taught at school.
As for nurse Nellie in Notting Hill, or wherever our fictional British civil servant receives her Guardian of a morning, she’d be well advised, for her own good and that of poor people in the developing world, to ignore the barrage of ill-informed boycott calls with which her paper bombards the modern “ethical consumer”.
There’s nothing ethical about innumerate ideology. DM
- My old South African flag
- Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue
- Do we tolerate private sector corruption?
- In defence of a lion killer
- Save the rare wine and endangered craft beer
- Forever blowing bubbles: shale gas economics
- Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill: When “certainty” means “wait and see”
- This land is my land: a revolution
- The launch of SA's Libertarian Party: herding cats in time for 2014
- The African case against the ICC
- The fossil fuel subsidy myth
- Think of the little fishies!
- The hilariously misunderstood libertarian
- The sickly history of sweeteners
- Pants on fire, but they’re not mine
- The obstructionism of shale gas activists
- How mind-numbing numbers whip up fear
- Why pick on Khanyi Dhlomo?
- Half-measures will fail the rhino
- Malema’s righteous anger... and naïve confusion
- Lottery licence to go to one lucky winner
- Vaccinations: when the state stabs the people
- Do reusable shopping bags kill people?
- The long walk to serfdom
- The Karoo desperately needs development
- The trials of Samson Shuttleworth
- The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
- Raping the discourse about rape
- Who is the reasonable man?
- Fracking: Debating a big deal
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey