Although South Africa’s agricultural economy performed robustly in 2020, and possibly grew by between 10 and 13%, according to Agbiz and Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) estimates, employment numbers remain disappointing. The data released by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) shows that South Africa’s primary agricultural jobs were down 8% year-on-year in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2020, with 810 209 people employed.

There was a decline in employment across most provinces except for the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, and Mpumalanga, which registered job gains from the last quarter of 2019. The most considerable headcount losses occurred in the Western Cape, amounting to approximately 51 000 below 2019. KwaZulu-Natal followed, with jobs down by 21 000 compared with the last quarter of 2019.

Except for the Western and Northern Cape, we suspect that social distancing measures that were enforced to limit the virus’s spread might have contributed to the decline in employment. Some producers that would have typically employed seasonal workers around this period of the year were discouraged.

We say this because the Free State, North West, KwaZulu-Natal, and Limpopo were among provinces with a good field crop and horticulture harvest in 2020. In the Western and Northern Cape, the constrained cash flow following the ban of wine and alcohol sales at various intervals of the lockdown possibly contributed to the decline in employment. The producers in the provinces expressed a similar view.

Boost in forestry and fisheries employment statistics

From a subsector perspective, only the forestry and fisheries industries recorded an overall increase in employment in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2020, compared with the previous year. All other subsectors recorded a decline in employment. However, it is worth noting that the provincial level dynamics differ, as evidenced by the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, and Mpumalanga, where primary agricultural employment increased in Q4 of 2020 compared with the same period 2019.

Notably the employment data will be of interest in the coming months, following the 16,1% increase in the farming minimum wage to R21,69/hour with effect on 1 March. Various commodity groups, especially those heavily affected by the lockdown regulations, have indicated that the recent increase in the minimum wage could cause a further squeeze on cash flow and negatively influence hiring decisions.

Nevertheless, the actual effect of the current minimum wage increase on jobs will be apparent later this year. From an agricultural perspective, the outlook for 2021 is positive, with prospects of higher yields in horticulture and field crops, as well as good performance in the livestock industry. – Wandile Sihlobo, Agbiz

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