Child labour rampant in tea plantation

CHIPINGE - Their labour is frowned upon by grown men, yet the children picking tea here are earning as little as $7 for a 25-day month.

With heavily scarred legs as cutback tea stumps slash their naked legs and their sweat irrigate the crop, these children’s destitute labour help this agricultural sector remain profitable.

While Jersey Tea Estate in Chipinge claims through its website that “pupils of 15 years or older are offered voluntary contract work where they are paid the same rates as other contract workers,” the Daily News investigations revealed that children as young as 12 years were employed here.

The young labourers risk snake and insect bites, early arthritis, poor bone development and will have to pay for it over their lifetime through loss of health, education and other opportunities because of poverty which has over the years been also worsened by a debilitating HIV epidemic.
 
The children, referred to as “earn and learn contractors” at the Jersey Tea Estate are provided with homemade sandals cobbled from worn-out tyres, locally referred to as manyatera, a canvas apron and a rain cap for protection.

According to a contract document seen by the Daily News: “The earn and learn contractor will be supplied with (when available) a rain cap, manyatera sandals, plucking apron, a plucking basket and other small tools as necessary. Rain caps and plucking baskets remain the property of the company.”

Dickson Tarusenga, Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions’ (ZCTU) deputy secretary-general, said these were not sufficient as protective clothing, adding that this is an area that qualifies under the Labour Act for an automatic strike. He admitted he was unaware of the child labour  which he said they would task their affiliate in the agricultural sector to look into.

“We are going to put this case to GAPWUZ (General Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union) to investigate,” Tarusenga said.

Hundreds of children drop out of school due to suppurating wounds.

Those injured at the workplace are not given the opportunity to heal before returning to work, often in wet conditions, according to former students.

Rumbidzai Sigauke picked tea at Jersey from Grade six to Form two, dropping out of the Jersey Secondary School due to a deep ankle wound that refused to heal.

She says she did not get time-off to heal properly.

Among her 24 siblings, only seven had the courage to enrol into the earn and learn programme in sixth grade, with only two managing to complete Ordinary Level as the other five dropped out due to injury.

“Many parents only finance their children’s education until they reach Grade six from when they hand them over to the tea estate under the programme,” said a local employee who requested anonymity fearing victimisation.

Another young girl, Johanna, now 16, enrolled at Jersey School at the age of 13 and entered the contract without any representation from any adult.

She was however, compelled to drop out in her second year at the school due to chest pains as she would pick tea twice her weight while she laboured for a dollar for every 60kg tea leaves.

While the contracts states that “the company will not deduct national insurance off wages of earn and learn pupil contractors” this is working to the disadvantage of the children, notes a local lawyer and Legal Resources Mutare director, Memory Mandingwa.
 
“They won’t have workman’s compensation which covers injuries at work which NSSA (National Social Security Authority) would be liable to cover if they were making the contributions,” Mandingwa said.

A NSSA principal inspector, Yananai Zendera said his organisation was not making the deductions because it was “illegal for children to be at work.”

“They can only work as part of training not for earnings and even so that work should not interfere with their educational development,” Zendera said.

There was a legal void in monitoring the agricultural sector as NSSA had no mandate to deal with the issue.

“The problem is that there is no arm of government tasked with inspecting the agricultural sector,” Zendera said.

However, the programme has been operational since the colonial era, beginning in the 1940s.

A man who only identified himself as Mazibiye, now 21, says he had no choice but opt to slave for $7 in 25 days’ work each month, picking coffee and macadamia nuts at nearby Smadeel Estatean Farm.
 
“Without limits to the number of contact workers that work the fields, the farm is overpopulated and this limits everyone’s earnings,” Mazibiye said.

Most people, he said, avoid picking tea because it’s “too labour intensive” and there was a high risk of injury.

Children in the Earn and Learn Programme only rest two weeks in a year. While they work six hours a day from Monday to Saturday during the school term, during academic holidays, as if to make up for lost time, they labour for the whole day, investigations by the Daily News have revealed.

The Labour Relations Act (Employment of Children and Young Persons) Regulations Statutory Instrument 72 of 1997 prohibits the employment of children during school terms unless the Labour and Social Welfare minister gives assent to the contract.

“A child or young person shall not be employed to work during a school term, as fixed in terms of the Education Act [Chapter 25:04], unless the contract of employment concerned has been approved by the minister,” the Act says.

Waking up at 04:30 hours the children only retire to bed at 2130 hours each school day.
 
In winter, they start school while it is yet dark — 05:30 hours and are released at noon for lunch before work which starts at 13:00 till 1730 hours. In summer they slave uninterrupted for six hours before school each day.

They then attend class for another six hours before a further two-hour compulsory study.

Of their earnings, $5 is for tuition, accommodation $3 and food $3 a month. They are given the difference after deductions from their earnings.

Although established “as a way of assisting the community with education development and at the same time establishing a stable and reliable source of labour,” at present labour appears to be the priority.

Acting Manicaland provincial education director, Andrew Chigumira claims he is yet to get any complaints from the children about any injuries.

But said there were “no alternatives” to the system currently. - Bernard Chiketo

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