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South Africa's vibrant and diverse economy is a powerful draw for Africans from other countries migrating in search of work.

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But the chance of earning a wage can come with a price: If undocumented, foreign migrants are liable to be arrested, detained, and deported in circumstances and under conditions that flout South Africa's own laws. And as highlighted by the situation in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, both documented and undocumented foreign farm workers may have their rights under South Africa's basic employment law protections violated by employers in ways ranging from wage exploitation to uncompensated workplace injury, and from appalling housing conditions to workplace violence.

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Human Rights Watch has conducted research on the situation and experiences of migrant workers around the globe. Its research demonstrates that migrant workers, whether documented or undocumented, are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses.

Such abuses can be the result of many different factors including inadequate legal protections, illegal actions of unscrupulous employers or state officials, and lack of state capacity or political will to enforce legal protections and to hold abusive employers and officials to account.

The focus of this report is principally the situation of Zimbabweans and Mozambicans in South Africa's Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces.

Human Rights Watch believes that in South Africa migrants are regularly subject to human rights violations when they are deported, and that South Africa's Immigration Act is routinely violated. Human Rights Watch researchers spoke with several witnesses who reported that when apprehending suspected undocumented foreigners, police, immigration, and military personnel had assaulted them and extorted money. In one case, a border military patrol failed to prevent the rape of an undocumented migrant whom they had arrested.

Unaccompanied child migrants detained by South African officials are held in police cells with adults, contrary to both domestic and international standards relating to the detention of minors. Deportees allege that police on deportation trains sometimes assault and extort money from them, and have even thrown deportees — who believe they have bought their freedom — off moving trains to their death.

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Immigration policy provides that foreign migrants facing deportation should be allowed to collect their unpaid wages, savings, and personal possessions, but in practice this seldom occurs. On the farms of Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, many farmers who produce on a large-scale for export or for the domestic market use only documented workers.

This leaves farm owners whose market contributions and labor forces are much smaller as the principal employers of undocumented workers. But documented or not, workers experience abuse and exploitation: While many large-scale farmers do adhere to the basic conditions of employment law, other farmers openly disregard the minimum wage, do not pay overtime, sick leave, or annual leave, and make unlawful deductions from workers' wages.

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Existing legislation also creates disincentives for employers to provide housing for workers. Farm workers are still too often the victims of violence by employers and other farm staff, which the workers may be unwilling to report for fear of losing their jobs. Many employers do not claim state compensation to be passed on to farm workers who are injured at work, and when they do, the practice whereby payments can only be made into a bank account creates a barrier for foreign workers who normally are unable to have accounts to receive compensation settlements.


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