Vulnerable to abuse and yet without question one of the most important contributors to the health of South Africa’s sugar industry, cane cutters are the unsung ‘samurais’ of the country’s agricultural sector, and their health and nutrition should be a priority for farmers, according to a report.

Before dawn on most days between March and December, thousands of men dressed in soot-stained rags with their “swords” wrapped in hessian and slung over their shoulders, move in the gloom towards South Africa’s sugarcane fields.

They will return, often to the most basic of accommodation and a pot of puthu (porridge made from maize meal) and beans, when the sun tips the horizon just before dark.

It is these men, who are more often than not hundreds of kilometres if not further from their homes and their families, who bend and cut and bend and cut, over and over, as they prepare a crop for collection and delivery to the industry’s 14 factories across KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.

For those who cut and lay the cane stalks for mechanical collection, they are required to cut, on average, between 8 and 9.5 tons of cane a day. For those who cut and stack, the average is between 4 and 4.5 tons a day.  However, these averages differ from area to area and are based on whether the cane is irrigated or not, and whether or not the crop is burnt or trashed (harvested without being burned).

One farmer, who asked not to be named, said in his view a cane cutter’s job was the most “ergonomically challenging” of any sector, including mining. “The only positive for a cane cutter is that he is working in the fresh air, whereas a miner is kilometres underground,” he said.

In short, without the services of cane cutters, the country’s sugar industry would grind to a halt.

But they are also the most vulnerable and often the most overlooked sector of the agricultural workforce as they are usually migrants from the former Transkei, Lesotho or Mozambique. Their skills are basic, and they are usually desperate for the work.

In a report written by the South African Sugar Association’s Nutrition Department in 2011 the role of good nutrition for cane cutters was highlighted as a challenge, as the “total energy intake is often insufficient to meet the total energy output of what is a physically demanding job”.

According to the report, what is especially important is the prevention of depletion of muscle and liver glycogen (glucose stores). Without these stores the cane cutters’ ability to maintain the work levels is impossible and eventually will lead to chronic fatigue and serious illness.

And while statistics were unavailable, it is common knowledge that many suffer from HIV/Aids-related infections and illnesses.

Research completed in 1994 and titled: Relationship between expenditure and productivity of sugarcane cutters and stackers (Lambert MI, Cheevers EJ and Coopoo Y) noted that the energy expended by a cane cutter averaged 1 325 kilojoules a ton. That figure did not include stacking as well.

While the South African Sugar Association report conceded it was difficult to make blanket dietary recommendations for the industry as variables were extensive from farm to farm, the general recommendation was that all cane cutters should take in a minimum of six litres of fluids during working hours to prevent dehydration and fatigue, and that the energy requirement per ton was a useful indicator for farmers wanting to make sure cutters’ nutritional needs was met.

In a bid to establish best practice among commercial growers, Shukela questioned growers on what they provided for their cutters.

In one instance a grower has started providing a fortified nutritional supplement called Wabhusta, which is high protein and provides important nutritional supplements.

“Cane cutters work from dawn until dusk. And yes, they do take foods such as maas (sour milk), samp and beans, for example, into the field with them. But we believe that when they get back to their accommodation they must have a hot and nutritious meal that includes vegetables and meat. As a result, we have a dedicated cook who prepares their food and then a supervisor who sees that their accommodation is properly maintained and that services such as clean water are properly maintained,” the grower said.

Sidebar/text box:

While there are no regulations governing basic living conditions for farmworkers, the following guidelines were provided by the South African Sugar Association:

  • Charging fees for the accommodation or services provided to workers, such as food or transport, should be avoided where workers do not have the choice to live or eat anywhere else, or if deemed unavoidable, should take into account the specific nature of their accommodation.
  • The company/employer in charge of managing workers’ accommodation should have the prime responsibility for ensuring their physical well-being and integrity. This involves making sure facilities are kept in good condition (ensuring sanitary standards or fire regulations are respected, for instance) and that adequate health and safety plans and standards are designed and implemented.
  • Living conditions for workers should be clean, safe and, at a minimum, meet their basic needs.
  • Management must ensure both natural and artificial lighting are provided and maintained in housing and accommodation, including emergency lighting.
  • Electricity or other appropriate energy resources for heating, cooking and lighting should be provided.
  • (Note that providing wood or fire material is not an adequate energy resource as this constitutes a potential health and fire hazard and high risk under the Occupational Health and Safety requirements).
  • Management must provide an adequate, convenient supply of free potable water that is always available at their living facilities. International guidelines: a minimum of 80 litres per person daily; SA guidelines: 25 litres per person daily.
  • There must be adequate space for workers living in hostels and overcrowding must be avoided.
  • There is adequate space for workers living in rooms/communal accommodation.
  • Adequate toilet facilities must be provided at worker housing/accommodation.
  • The number of toilets provided is in accordance with the SANS requirement – two toilets per eight women and one toilet for eight men.
  • Adequate shower/bathroom facilities must be provided at living facilities.
  • The number of shower/bathroom facilities must be in accordance with the SANS requirement – one bath/shower per eight people living in the same facility.
  • There should be an adequate number of beds for workers living in rooms/hostels.
  • There must be evidence that:
    • there is a separate bed for each worker and each worker is provided with a free mattress
    • In cases where workers cook their own food, cooking space is provided separate from the sleeping areas
    • Cooking facilities provided are hygienic and clean
    • There is adequate ventilation
    • Vermin-proof storage space is provided
    • Food is stored at least 40cm off the floor
    • The cooking area is cleaned regularly
    • It is the owner’s responsibility not to deny or deprive an occupier of access to water, educational or health services.