‘Like slaves’: Zimbabwe farmworkers lash out at work conditions

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Subsistence farmer Joice Chimedza harvests maize on her small plot in Norton, a farming area outside Zimbabwe''s capital Harare, May 10, 2016 [Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]

Farm labourers in Zimbabwe are decrying colonial-era working and living conditions that they say still defines their jobs.

Beatrice, Zimbabwe – For most of the last nine years, Admire Munatsi has gotten to his boss’s farmhouse in Beatrice, 65km (40 miles) south of Harare, at dawn, to begin a range of tasks from cleaning the chicken run and pigsty to washing cars. By 7am, he joins his workmates in his oversized work suit and tattered gumboots to start a 10-hour shift as an irrigator at the farm.

His combined monthly pay for both roles is $70.

But despite the poor wages and long working schedule, Munatsi considers himself lucky compared with many others across Zimbabwe who work similar daily routines.

“Sometimes my boss’s family pampers me with all their unwanted stuff – clothes, utensils, and even food,” Munatsi told Al Jazeera. “And few farmers in the surrounding farms pay above $50.”

Zimbabwe’s agriculture sector remains the largest employer of labour in the country but the official minimum wage for farm labourers is about 78,000 Zimbabwean dollars (approximately $70) per month. With the annual inflation rate now at about 180 percent in a country where more than half of the workforce\ is in the informal sector, low-paying, labour-intensive jobs are still very appealing.

Across Zimbabwe, some farm labourers now work multiple jobs to complement their meagre earnings. Others are trying their luck in neighbouring Botswana and South Africa, sometimes ending up as victims of horrific xenophobic attacks.

Within Zimbabwe, many farm labourers live in colonial-era shacks commonly known as “makomboni”.

Munatsi lives in one, sharing two rooms with his wife and four children. Some of his peers have to make do with living in renovated pigsties, tobacco barns, and horse stables on farms where they work.

Al Jazeera spoke to almost a dozen labourers but most chose to speak anonymously for fear of reprisals from their bosses.

Like Munatsi, many said they struggle to provide even the basics for their family, routinely owing their bosses and money lenders, a pattern that has led to many farm labourers being forced to stick to their underpaying jobs for many years.

“We all dream of better-paying jobs and better lives for our families, but what can you do?” he said. “It’s like we are slaves.”

A tractor is seen transporting farm workers in Zimbabwe
A tractor is seen transporting farm workers property on the highway on the outskirts of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe Friday, Feb, 3, 2023 [Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo]

‘No immediate change’

Since the days of colonial rule in what was then Rhodesia, a talking point in Zimbabwe’s agriculture-dominated economy has been the exploitation of illiterate Black farm labourers by their white settler farmer bosses.

In the 1950s and 60s, there was an influx of migrant workers from neighbouring Malawi and Zambia into the Zimbabwean job market, offering cheap labour. Some local labourers were forcibly recruited, but for others, it was a choice between working for cheap or starving in their villages where there were no jobs.

When Zimbabwe finally got independence in 1980 after a protracted liberation war, Robert Mugabe, the new first Black prime minister, adopted a globally applauded reconciliation policy with white farmers.

This left mostly white commercial farmers in full control of the majority of the country’s prime farmland, but there was no change of fortunes for farm labourers.

“Independence brought no immediate change to the mindset of white commercial farmers and their treatment of Black farm labourers,” Hamandishe Maponga, who worked for different white farmers before and after independence, told Al Jazeera.

“Perhaps what only changed is that some farmers stopped using racist terms when insulting us,” Maponga, now 72, told Al Jazeera.

By the early 2000s’, veterans of the liberation war started occupying and taking over white-owned farms, backed by the Mugabe administration. Black farm labourers found themselves working for new bosses, this time Black, but again working conditions barely changed.

This controversial occupation of Zimbabwe’s white-owned farms was accompanied by sanctions from Western countries leading to a steep economic downturn and record hyperinflation. This further worsened the plight of most farm workers who were earning trillions of Zimbabwean dollars that amounted to only a few US dollars.

Cases of workers complaining about low or unpaid wages have lingered for years in the understaffed but overwhelmed labour courts. Consequently, several labourers told Al Jazeera anonymously that they have never contemplated approaching the courts for help.

Organised strikes or work stoppages by farm labourers are also rare in Zimbabwe.

“Except in extreme cases, farm labourers rarely hire lawyers to push their cases because legal fees are unrealistically too high in Zimbabwe,” Charles Kungwengwe, a law and history lecturer at Gaborone University School of Law in Botswana, told Al Jazeera. “Most farm labourers are not well informed about their entitlement or rights and employers often take advantage of that.”

“It’s a pity that the slave-like treatment of farm labourers is one of those colonial legacies that many African countries have normalised,” he added.

These poor working conditions have been allowed to go on by barely enforced labour laws, industry insiders and trade unionists say.

“Many farms in Zimbabwe are owned by members of parliament, politicians and other influential professionals whose interests as farm owners often conflicted with their other roles,” Michael  Kandukutu, head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZTCTU), told Al Jazeera. “In order to improve the lives of farm labourers, there should be no sacred cows or selective application of the law when their rights are violated.”

Lack of subsidies and poor management skills by farmers coupled with problems like unreliable water and power supply, and poor infrastructure like roads have also increased farming costs.

“The government might regulate minimum wage for farm labourers but most farmers are either unable or unwilling to pay this wage,” Prosper Chitambabra, an economist at The Labour Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, told Al Jazeera. “Most farm labourers are struggling because they earn well below the poverty datum line and far below the average minimum wage.”

Hoping for better conditions

The exit of longtime ruler Mugabe and the entry of Emmerson Mnangagwa in 2017 made many farm workers dream of better working conditions.

Unlike his predecessor, who was regarded as a “protectionist” in foreign business circles, Mnangagwa launched a “Zimbabwe is open for business” policy to lure foreign investors.

“Hopefully, these new players will set new standards in our working conditions,” Aaron Phiri, a 32-year-old herd boy at a dairy farm in Chivhu, told Al Jazeera. “Our salaries are still far below our expectations.”

There is also renewed hope for change, especially in the kombonis, informal housing compounds, where social workers say living conditions are on a decline.

“Cases of domestic violence, alcoholism, extreme poverty, school dropouts, and early marriages are relatively high out there,” said Atipa Mhute, a social worker at Farm Orphans Support Trust, an NGO that supports farm orphans observed. “We must first break this cycle of illiteracy and poverty to end the exploitation that in some cases can be likened to modern slavery.”

But some have no other options.

“I have been here for more than eight years but I have no pension fund, no leave days, no written contract, or medical insurance,” Munatsi said. “If you subject your worker to such conditions, you are a slave master, not an employer.”

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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