Technology’s answer to raisin wages . . .

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Farmworkers in the Western Cape were this week once again preparing to take to the streets demanding higher wages. Their last foray on 15 November saw two people killed, buildings and vineyards set alight, and the road from Cape to Cairo shut down at De Doorns.

There has been a lot of sympathetic clucking from my colleagues in the media who feel it is untenable that farm workers currently earn a minimum of R70 per day. An increase to R150 per day demanded by those workers is not unreasonable, they say. None of us would survive on R70 per day, they say. They are probably correct.

My views on the matter are a lot less starry-eyed. You see, I once firmly believed that low-cost labour was an exploitative practice until I realised that it was simply a line item on a financial statement. As with any other cost, one tries to keep it as low as possible or one looks for alternatives.

So let's take a look at grape farming. And let's use the example of California, which competes with the Western Cape for a share of the global raisin market.

Unlike South Africa, the US does not require that a person working for three months of the year be kept in employment for the entire year. Grape picking is a seasonal activity and so, up until around 2008, around 50 000 people in the US were seasonally employed for the harvest. At the time, the cost of hand harvesting was around $1 000 per hectare.

The number of people now employed in hand harvesting has fallen to around 25 000 and the cost of harvesting has fallen to around $500 per hectare.

It's a combination of declining land area and increased mechanisation. Higher density vines grown over trellises mean less space needed between the vines which leads to increasing efficiency in use of the land.

Instead of human workers picking bunches of grapes, mechanical harvesters slice the canes holding bunches of grapes so that they begin to dry on the vine. Machines with rotating fingers then knock the raisins off the vine.

Pruning vines used to be a more complicated affair requiring human foresight. Vision Robotics, a company based in San Diego, has a solution to that: their robotic harvester mimics good hand pruning for roughly half the cost of a human team.

So let's leave grapes aside and compare apples and oranges. The same company already makes a kick-ass orange harvester robot: "Vision systems are first used to scan and identify oranges within a grove. Scanning heads placed at the end of multi-axis arms use arrays of stereoscopic cameras to create a virtual 3D image of the entire orange tree.

"The positions and sizes of the oranges are stored and passed on to the harvesting arms. Immediately following the scanning process, eight long reticulating arms are manoeuvred to gracefully pick each orange quickly, efficiently, and economically."

A similar process is used for their apple harvester robot.

Strawberries are usually the most difficult fruit to pick mechanically, but the Japanese have a robot that does that. It's not yet as fast as a human picker, but it works 24/7 without lunch breaks or sick leave.

Even the war in Palestine has led to advances in this field. To quote New Technology and the End of Jobs by Jeremy Rifkin: "Concerned over the potential security risks involved in employing Palestinian migrant labour, the Israelis turned to the Institute for Agricultural Engineering for help in developing mechanical farm labourers.“ In a growing number of kibbutzes it is not unusual to see self-guided machines travelling on tracks laid out between rows of plants, spraying pesticides on crops.

"…automated machinery will dramatically affect the economic prospects of the more than 30 000 Palestinians employed during harvesting season."

In short, the jobs of those farm workers in the Western Cape depend on their wages being low, as did the jobs of more than 60 000 textile workers in Durban who became unemployed after our labour laws set minimum wages for that industry.

I've no doubt that the ANC government will raise the minimum wage for agricultural workers. I've no doubt that food prices will go up as a result. I've no doubt that thousands upon thousands of workers will lose their jobs as a result. I've no doubt that social unrest will follow as a result.