Land grab haunts farm workers

HARARE - Production on the once productive farms has sharply deteriorated and farm workers are bearing the effects of the change — going for months without wages — more than a decade after the Zanu PF-led government invaded farms.

Not everyone has engaged in successful farming, and new forms of social differentiation are emerging on the redistributed farms.

An investigative mission to Hunters Lodge, Tavoy and Hesketh revealed that the rural economy is in precipitous decline with farm labourers being totally displaced.

In interviews with a number of farm workers especially those who have an experience with both the white commercial farmers and the newly-resettled farmers, the overall picture is one of massive job losses — affecting about 70 percent of the original farm workforce.

The loss of permanent worker status on farms is widespread.

There is a pronounced trend towards contract or piecework arrangements. Both the newly-resettled small farmers and “new” large commercial farmers lack the financial resources and production capacity to absorb the former permanent workers.

However, despite the large job losses, a considerable proportion of farm workers remain living on the farms.

There is evidence to suggest that up to 50 percent of farm workers stayed on even when they no longer held jobs. In general, loss of employment had adverse effects on female workers.

Samuel Mabudha who is now at Hunters Lodge Farm in Karoi admitted the land invasions have negatively affected farm workers.

“I started working in 1963. While I was working, we were given our wages after five weeks. And after independence, it changed and we were given money after four weeks.

The money that I was given then was sufficient enough for me to earn a living. I was also able to take care of my parents and they were happy.

“I have worked with more than three new black farmers who grabbed land from white commercial farmers. All of them have not been consistent in paying our wages.

“Some of the new farmers can go up to 17 months or even more without paying but they are harvesting and selling crops. You don’t have leave days and other benefits which we used to get when white commercial farmers were still here,” he said.

The loss of a regular job-based income has undermined the livelihoods of most farm worker households.

The working conditions and wages on the farms of small and new commercial farmers are unattractive.

More than half of the newly-resettled farmers are failing to pay a paltry monthly wage of $59 per month to their farm workers more than a decade into the business.

In an interview, general secretary of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union (Gapwuz), Gift Muti said new farmers were not adequately remunerating workers.

“Fifty-nine dollars is the legal amount that farm workers are supposed to get, but it’s an unfortunate case that we have other employers who are failing to pay the money. More than half of the newly-resettled farmers are not paying their workers,” said Muti.

“Farmers should put their workers on the agenda. They should take farming as a business like any other business.”

Mabudha said new farmers are the new employers they look up to but they are failing to fulfil their mandate.

“Some people who have these farms are ministers and they are not paying but these are the people who are supposed to make sure that workers’ rights are upheld. I no longer want to work for these people but getting a place to grow my own crops is a problem,” he said.

Some farm workers have created or joined “informal settlements” on which they have access to a small piece of land, and to basic, often-rudimentary social services.

An unfortunate development is farm workers’ diminishing access to crucial resources and services.

Change in farm ownership has restricted access to housing, schools, clinics and safe water. Where a farm owner has been evicted, the running and maintenance of the school and payment of the teaching staff often ceases, leading to the school’s closure.

Most early child education centres (ECECs) have also been closed down, as have farm clinics.

Roderick Kahonde, another farm worker now wandering in the farms said when commercial farmers were still active, they used to live in nicely-built houses.

“White commercial farmers had an excellent welfare for workers. The houses we now live in are not being maintained. We used to get food rations such as mealie meal, matemba, beans among other things but with black farmers we are getting nothing,” Kahonde said.

In response to the loss of permanent jobs and access to shelter and social services, farm workers have pursued a number of coping strategies.

These include the wandering search for piece work jobs at different farms at different times, informal trade, gold panning, fishing and hunting.

Income from these activities is irregular and limited, but the workers appear to have no other options.

Kahonde said safety clothing is now a thing of the past as the new black farmers are failing to provide them.

Letty Shumba a female farm worker said white commercial farmers were sending their children to school.

“Things are now difficult for us since the departure of white commercial farmers. Our children are no longer going to school. The fortunate ones who are going to school do not have text books while some are using tobacco barns as classrooms.”

Shumba added: “We do not have clinics anywhere near, we have to travel long distances. Even entertainment centres which we used to have are now a thing of the past.”

Muti also bemoaned the deterioration of education facilities in the farms.

He said “When the land reform was initiated, it resulted in the destruction of schools most of which stopped operations. Pupils are learning in barns, under trees and others in farm houses because proper government schools are far away.”

Charles Taffs the president of Commercial farmers Union of Zimbabwe (CFUZ) said they used to have 900 farm schools but have now been reduced to around 100.

Farmer labourers also bemoaned the bonus they used to get in form of bicycles, blankets, food hampers among other things.

Taffs said politicians tend to take advantage and fail to pay workers.

“We have political heavies on these farms who honestly think they don’t have to pay for labour and they don’t have to pay Zesa.”

Taffs added that farm invasions have resulted in displacement farm workers.

“In 2000, commercial farmers employed 350 000 people and we housed between 1,5 million and two million people on those farms. Since then, we have seen a massive internal displacement of those workers particularly the most skilled workers.

“A lot of the workers that were left behind were thrown out of the houses and they were also beaten. The workers have suffered a mince. Basically what has happened is that organised agriculture effectively has been destroyed,” he said.

The Land Reform Programme which started in 2000, allocated more than 4 500 farms to new farmers, making 20 percent of the total land area of the country, according to (admittedly rough) official figures.

This represents over 145 000 farm households in A1 schemes and around 16 500 further households occupying A2 plots — a significant shift to many more small-scale farms focusing on mixed farming, often with low levels of capitalisation.

Land reform has had a direct impact on food security at national level as well as on farm workers’ requirements. The disruptions associated with “land invasions” further undermined crop production.

For jobless farm workers, access to food has been difficult and irregular.

Food aid has been made available to some of those without a livelihood, and to children under five and those of school age.

Like other social groups, farm workers have been vulnerable to the HIV/Aids epidemic. The prevalence rate among them in the 20-49 year age group is estimated at higher than 25 percent.

The consequences include a rise in the number of orphans and child-headed households.

Extended family and nuclear family structures are under severe stress as household assets are drawn upon to treat people with Aids-related sicknesses. Resources and home-based care institutions for the sick are very limited.

Taffs said organised agriculture has been destroyed.

“When organised agriculture has been destroyed you lose the benefits. Structured labour representation has been broken down.

They are either being used as a political tool or they are to self enrich themselves.”

Zimbabwe, once saluted as the bread basket of Africa was turned into an empty shell and now depends on imports to feed the nation.

Taffs said the whole issue of “farming needs to go back to basics where a farm labourer is treated as a person of that business, where he has a home in that environment, health care and education.”

Muti said they have a membership of around 200 000 farm workers and they are working hard to protect the farm labourers.

Other vulnerable groups in the farm worker community include migrant workers and their descendants, women, the elderly, youth and children.

Most migrant workers or their descendants have no communal homes, land or jobs to fall back on.

There is no social safety net for the elderly and retired workers, or for women concentrated in insecure, seasonal jobs. - Moses Chibaya

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