October 16, 2020

Farm Workers on World Food Day: “We Are Not Valued”

Nokutula Mhene

Farm workers in Zimbabwe are among the most deprived people worldwide

Photo: Jan Urhahn, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. Workers during the tobacco harvest in Zimbabwe.
Almost 700 million people worldwide go hungry every day. Especially on the African continent, the situation has worsened in recent years. The circumstances of farm workers have often gone overlooked in recent debates on hunger, which is why the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung has decided to take a closer look at the living and working realities of farm workers in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in Southern Africa that has faced massive economic and social woes, leaving millions of its citizens trapped in abject poverty. The country has one of the highest unemployment rates worldwide, coupled with the collapse of basic public infrastructure.

Farm workers are counted amongst Zimbabwe’s poorest and most marginalized, earning what can be termed slave wages. Despite land reform in the country, the same class relations between farm owners and farm workers continue to exist as before, even if most farm owners are now black. Capitalism has ensured that farm workers remain oppressed and insecure despite changes in the country’s political leadership and government policies.

Nokutula Mhene of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Food Sovereignty Programme spoke with Janet and Peter (not their real names), farm workers on a tobacco plantation in Macheke, Zimbabwe, about their lives and the challenges they face.

NM: What is life like as a farm worker in Zimbabwe?

Life as a farm worker is very difficult. The way we work is very one sided. The bosses tell us that it is “their way or the highway”—we have no say in how things are done. This does not sit well with us, as we feel that, as workers, we must have a say.

What are your working hours?

At this time when we harvest tobacco, we begin work at 6:30 until 18:00 or 18:30. We then take a 15-minute tea break and 30-minute lunch break, but the rest of the time we are working. Some of us work in the tunnel[1], we wake up at 2:00, start in the tunnel by 6:00, and spend the whole day there. It is very hot in the tunnel. However, I do not get paid more for this work.

Do you enjoy your work?

Working under these conditions is difficult. We are very unhappy and work for very little money. The bosses also do not listen to our grievances. We also feel that there is favouritism and segregation.

Do you feel that you are adequately compensated for your labour?

In terms of payment, we receive around 550 Zimbabwean dollars per month with no benefits (at the February 2020 official rate, this was equivalent to 31.81 US dollars, but only 19.30 at the parallel rate[2]. We have no choice, as work is scarce despite the fact that there is a recent nationwide agreement to raise wages and benefits for farm workers. What is surprising, is that at other farms they receive 850 Zimbabwean dollars per month (47.48 US dollars the at official rate, 29.31 at the parallel rate) or even 1,200 (official: 69.40 US dollars, parallel: 49.37 US dollars).[3] Others get paid in cash, but our pay is deposited in the bank, from which it is very difficult to get money. With this 550 Zimbabwean dollars I must buy maize meal for 140, school books for the kids as these are no longer provided by the government, clothes, and the basics for running my household. Our salary is by far not enough to get by.

We are all lumped into the same grade despite the work we do, we are all in grade A1. There is no overtime until the harvest season is over. The bosses do not see this challenge, they only care about the work being finished, not about us as workers. We are not valued.

Do you have adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

We work with no PPE despite our requests. Even when we spray the crops with hazardous pesticides, we do not get PPE. These rubber boots that I am wearing, I got them three years ago. The employer is concerned with cutting costs, and if that means putting our lives as risk—so be it.

Do you have access to safe drinking water during the day?

We drink water straight from the dam, which is pumped by machine. This water is not purified. This is a health risk, as that’s where diseases such as cholera can begin.

Do you feel that you can adequately raise your concerns?

No, we cannot raise our concerns. We have a workers’ committee but it has been infiltrated so labour violations go unchecked. There was recently the issue of notice period, where the bosses said you cannot give 24 hours’ notice if you find another job but have to give three months’ notice—even though this is not the law. There is also a lot of backbiting from other workers. Even if you complain amongst yourselves, someone will go and tell the boss. I will give an example: in some cases, you cannot work in some parts of the farm due to health reasons. For example, if you have chest pains you cannot work in the barn. However, if you raise this issue, you are told that you may as well leave the job. This means that even if I have a condition, I will not be able to speak up for fear of reprisal.

What are some of the challenges that women face?

Women do not have access to proper hygiene facilities that ensure their dignity. This is especially difficult during menstruation.

Would you want your children to also become farm workers?

I would not want my children to become farm workers. Right now we are not able to buy adequate clothes for my kids or send them to the schools that I feel they deserve. I had hopes for doing better in life. If I could turn back time, or be reborn, I would hope not to be a farm worker. We are very oppressed, the bosses act like they own us. We are only here because we have no choice.

Nokutula Mhene works as programme manager at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Southern Africa Regional Office in Johannesburg, which first published this article.

[1] Note of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung: this is a barn with a constant heat source to cure the tobacco. When our team walked through the “tunnel”, they described feeling like fainting within the first minute of entering because of the humidity and the heat (over 50°).

[2] Zimbabwe has struggled to control its so-called “parallel markets” with fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs), such as foreign currency and fuel being sold virtually at all busy corners. For money exchanges, parallel market dealers have mushroomed in every city and town. This has resulted in the country having two exchange rates.  Zimbabwe has an official rate of the Zimbabwean dollar to the US dollar as well as a parallel rate, with the latter being used by most ordinary citizens as foreign currency is not easily accessible through the banking system.

[3] Salaries in Zimbabwe were revised in May 2020, with the lowest-paid farm worker set to receive 1,200 ZWL per month (official: 48.00 dollars, parallel: 25.26) and the highest-paid receiving 2,400 ZWL per month (official: 96.00 dollars, parallel: 50.52). In July 2020 this was again revised, with the lowest-paid set to earn 2,260 per month (official: 35.46, parallel: 22.60) and the highest-paid earning 4,520 per month (official: 70.98, parallel: 45.20).