Slavery on Zimbabwe’s “liberated” farms

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Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe is being dragged before the courts by his former farm manager for making him work at his network of farms for no pay.

This is just but one of the many labour cases that the Mugabes are facing since the former strong man was toppled from power in November 2017.

But this is not unusual in Zimbabwe, a country whose oft-violent seizure of farms from white commercial farmers has turned the former bread basket of southern Africa into a basket case, as most of the new black owners of the farms cannot make the land productive.

The new farmers greatest undoing has been their inability to attract and retain labourers, with poor pay – and worse still, non-payment of even those paltry wages – being the main reasons.

Those Zimbabwean farm workers that are lucky to get paid at all are getting anything between an equivalent of US$8 and US$19 per month. By way of comparison, in neighbouring South Africa, the lowest paid of the farm worker gets a monthly wage equivalent to US$212. Also in neighbouring Namibia, farm workers get an average equivalent to US$230.

“The new farmers have just taken over what the colonialists were doing… slave labour,” says Philip Mafundu, the national organising secretary of the Progressive Agriculture and Allied Industries Workers Union of Zimbabwe (PAAIWUZ).

“They have taken over the abuse that was done by the white commercial farmers. In some cases, it’s actually worse than what was happening when the white farmers were there”, he says.

Even those low wages are not being paid, and in some cases they only are paid after a long time when they have been eroded by the country’s galloping inflation, which has seen prices of good and services increasing by more than 1000 percent inside nine months.

Last year the PAAIWUZ dragged a number of high-profile personalities to court over their failure to pay their farm workers, with some of the workers having gone for over a year without pay.

Included among those notorious for ill-treating workers are thousands of the new farmers that make up the country’s billion-dollar tobacco sector where use of child labour and other gross human rights abuses are rampant.

According to a 2016 report, Working and Living Conditions of Workers in the Agricultural Sector in Zimbabwe compiled by Naome Chakanya, from 2011 to 2016, wages for farm workers failed to keep pace with both the food poverty line and the poverty datum line (PDL), thus reducing the workers to the “working poor”.

In 2011 and 2012, the lowest paid worker in the general agriculture sector earned $59. The figure was reviewed slightly up in 2013 by $6 to $65. In 2014 and 2015 workers earned $72.

The report highlighted non-payment of wages as one of the major difficulties facing farm workers in Zimbabwe.

“Non- payment of wages is limiting the attainment and enjoyment of basic socio-economic rights for farm workers”, the report pointed out.

“Non-payment of wages translates to a wide range of insecurities such as food, health, education, and housing insecurities, among others. These basic socio-economic rights are critical for better family welfare and livelihood. Worryingly, the brunt of the burden falls on women, given their triple burden of wage-employment, care work, and housework… Responses also indicated that children, especially the girl children have becomes the worst affected as parents fail to secure funds for school fees due to non-payment their wages or due the poverty wages in general.”

The wages reached about $80 before the government of Zimbabwe in October last year suddenly replaced the United States dollar, which it had used as its base currency for the past decade, with its worthless currency, insisting that the two currencies were on par. Nine months later, the run-away exchange rate between the two currencies had reached 1:10. This was in July, when farm workers’ wages were increased from Z$135 to Z$195, making them worse off as the new amount was only equivalent to US$19. This mean the workers toil for 12 hours per in a day to get just over US$0.50.

“Setting a minimum wage of Z$195 means that all the workers in the agricultural industry are the poorest yet they are feeding the nation, for Zimbabwe to grow every one of us eats in the morning, afternoon and evening yet we all treat the one who produces the food with contempt”, says Mafundu.