Farmworkers raise concerns on working conditions

FOR most of the last nine years, Admire Munatsi has gone to his boss’s farmhouse in Beatrice, 65km 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 said.

“And few farmers in the surrounding farms pay above US$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 US$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, lowpaying, 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.” 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, said.

“Perhaps what only changed is that some farmers stopped using racist terms when insulting us,” Maponga, now 72, said. 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. — Aljazeera

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