Occupational hazards, living conditions, and physical assault of sugar cane workers in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

S Afr Med J. 1998 Sep;88(9):1117-27.


Objectives: To characterise the occupational hazards and living conditions of sugar cane workers in KwaZulu-Natal.

Design: Based on information provided by shop stewards, a survey instrument (questionnaire) was constructed for administration to union members.

Setting: Seven sugar cane farms and estates owned by one large corporation in late 1993.

Subjects: Members of the South African Farm and Allied Workers Union (SAFAWU).

Results: Of the 632 participants, 50% were permanent workers, 22.3% were seasonal workers and 27.7% were casual workers. Mean daily pay ranged from R5 to R35 per worker. The majority of participants reported substandard housing both during the growing season and during the off-season. Percentages reporting health problems in the last 12 months believed by the respondent to be caused or made worse by work included 79% with eye problems, 78% with upper respiratory problems, 88% with lower respiratory problems, 93% with musculoskeletal problems, and 81% with an acute traumatic injury. More than half the participants reported fainting, collapsing or illness from working on hot or sunny days. Fourteen per cent reported being struck with the fist or hand, or being pushed, shoved or kicked by a farm owner, member of the owner's family, manager or supervisor; 9% reported being struck with an object, whipped, or attacked or threatened with a knife or gun by one of these same individuals.

Conclusions: Sugar cane workers employed by a large corporation in KwaZulu-Natal appear to face severe threats to their physical and psychological well-being including: (i) inadequate pay to meet basic living needs; (ii) substandard living conditions; (iii) significant occupational hazards resulting in high reported levels of occupational illness and injury; and (iv) physical and psychological abuse and intimidation by farm owners and their agents.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Occupational / statistics & numerical data*
  • Adult
  • Agricultural Workers' Diseases / epidemiology
  • Agricultural Workers' Diseases / etiology
  • Delivery of Health Care / standards
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Female
  • Housing / standards
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Salaries and Fringe Benefits
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • South Africa / epidemiology
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Transients and Migrants
  • Violence*