SAR, Vol 11, No 3, April 1996
"IN SEARCH OF HOPE": ZIMBABWE'S FARM WORKERS
A REVIEW BY BLAIR RUTHERFORD
Blair Rutherford is an Ottawa-based graduate student in anthropology at McGill University.
"The government must really force these farmers. This is very crucial, otherwise they don't want to give protective clothes. From next month on we'll have a big problem of mosquitos, flies and disease spreading. We get good water from the borehole, but there's no tap in the compound, not even one. The money we're being paid is not enough. Look at the housing. We are badly treated. We are people and we are the producers . . . "
These words of a Zimbabwean farm worker plainly but accurately express the long history of neglect facing the nearly two million men, women, and children who work and live on the predominantly white-owned 4,500 commercial farms in Zimbabwe. More than fifteen years after Zimbabwe's Independence in 1980, the colonial legacy of poorly regulated working conditions and typically grim living conditions of farm workers and their families has continued without much sustained discussion in government and media circles. Sporadic attention to the predicament of Zimbabwean farm workers, including on these pages (see SAR, March 1994), has done little to concretely challenge the power that individual commercial farmers hold over the lives of their workers. However, a newly launched report, from which the above quotation comes, seems to be making a positive impact in the struggle to improve the situation of Zimbabwe's farm workers.
In Search of Hope for Zimbabwe's Farm Workers is a report written by Dede Amanor-Wilks (with contributions from seven Zimbabwean journalists) and put out jointly by the Panos Institute and Dateline Southern Africa. Through a mixture of political economy analysis, journalistic detail, and first-person testimonials, In Search of Hope powerfully captures the objectionable predicament of commercial farm workers in Zimbabwe and provides a number of recommendations. Unlike other studies with similar analyses and prescriptions, however, this report appears to be spurring on changes which could help the nearly one-fifth of the national population that has been forgotten by Independence.
In Search of Hope demonstrates how political and social disenfranchisement combined with paternalistic control of commercial farmers has produced ill-effects on the health and rights of farm workers. Characterising its findings as a "huge failure of policy," In Search of Hope stresses that government departments need to re-assess their responsibilities vis-à-vis farm workers. It points out that working conditions are rarely monitored, despite the fact that the agricultural sector annually competes with mining for the most occupational fatalities a year and that an estimated 160,000 people are poisoned by pesticides each year in the country. Living conditions for the majority of workers and their household members are not covered by any legislated regulations.
Although these issues are raised by the General Agricultural & Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ) in their negotiations with the Agricultural Labour Bureau (ALB) and the Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU), there has hardly been any progressive change coming from the collective bargaining agreements. And, as In Search of Hope details, GAPWUZ has a hard time enforcing the industry-wide regulations that do exist given its limited resources (it has 48 field staff to liaise with 80,000 members) and its own organizational weaknesses.
The Zimbabwean government has not only neglected the situation; its own policies have exacerbated matters. In Search of Hope provides example after example of the marginalisation of farm workers from social development programmes, such as education and primary health care. It also argues that the government's trade liberalization policies (see SAR, January/February 1996) have adversely affected farm workers by providing a context in which increasing casualization of farm labour and lowering of real wages have become the daily reality. The report even notes the shocking fact that the government has continued the colonial-era disenfranchisement of non-property-owning ratepayers or rent-payers on commercial farms (i.e. farm workers) from local government elections in its amendments to the relevant legislation in 1988.
Given that farm workers are "so marginalised politically and socially," the report shows how farm workers fall under a paternalistic regime, or what it terms a "domestic affair." Commercial farmers tend to treat relationships with their workers as a "family matter," where "farm workers are at the mercy of the individual farmer [and] everything depends on his goodwill." As In Search of Hope explains, the "master-servant relationship that exists between the farm owners and farm workers today is the legacy of a system developed under white minority rule." The report emphasizes that this colonial legacy has been nurtured by the "huge failure in policy" of the Zimbabwean government to the point where farm workers' "problems presently seem insurmountable."
But the careful documentation of this "huge failure in policy" on the lives of farm workers has set in motion some important dynamics. In Search of Hope has had this initial success because the author has included a broad spectrum of organisations, including the key actors involved, in the discussion of its findings and also because the Zimbabwean media have been involved in the carrying out of the project and in the one-day seminar that has made this discussions a public event.
A few days after the launch by the Minister of Local Government, Rural & Urban Development that government is planning to amend legislation this year or in early 1997 to allow farm workers to vote in local government elections. Although this major policy change is not a direct consequence of the report itself, the timing of its announcement likely was. Just as momentous, the one-day seminar that launched the report led to the formation of the Farm Workers Action Group (FWAG). Composed of representatives of various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), GAPWUZ, ALB, CFU, the Ministry of Education as well as two farm workers, a woman farmer, and a journalist, FWAG will seek solutions to the problems facing farm workers and act as a lobby group. By the end of January, it has already established an agenda of priority issues, with housing being the first one.
The formation of FWAG is a significant move in the struggle to improve the situation of farm workers in Zimbabwe. A key ingredient to the predicament of farm workers has been public neglect and the lack of sustained advocacy on their behalf. FWAG should act as a forum in which viable policies and programmes are developed and are strongly promoted to government, the ALB/CFU, GAPWUZ, donors and NGOs on a consistent basis. Will FWAG lead to an improvement for farm workers in Zimbabwe? Maybe. Like all struggles for progressive change, its success depends on tactics, commitment, and historical circumstances. Its chances of success rest on the activities and impact of five relevant groups - politicians, commercial farmers, GAPWUZ, development organizations and farm workers themselves.
The commitment of the government to progressive change for farm workers is uncertain. With its current fiscal crisis, it is hard to imagine the government providing development funds for farm workers, unless donors specifically earmark funding for farm worker programmes. This is especially so since many Ministers and senior bureaucrats are themselves owners of commercial farms and have been shown to be more sympathetic towards the CFU than GAPWUZ. The lack of representatives on FWAG from ministries more directly connected to farm workers (such as Ministries of Agriculture, Local Government, Rural & Urban Planning, and Public Service, Labour & Social Welfare) is also disconcerting.
Then there are the commercial farmers. The CFU and ALB sidestep any questions concerning ways to ensure that their members obey regulations. When Dede Amanor-Wilks raised the issue with them, they told her that they can "only apply moral pressure" and that aside from a "few rotten eggs, 80% of their members are `looking after their labour.' " Ms. Amanor-Wilks believes that advocates need to try to amplify the moral pressure on farmers - the report suggests the increased vulnerability of commercial farmers to bad press given their growing reliance on international markets. However, given the weight of farmers' "domestic" authority on the lives of farm workers, there needs to be more concrete ways to ensure that farmers will buy into the plans proposed by FWAG.
The third group is GAPWUZ. Ms. Amanor-Wilks notes that GAPWUZ has been plagued by internal disputes and that it is well-known that they have organizational problems. The report suggests donors and academics work with GAPWUZ to develop their capacity to effectively represent farm workers. Such steps desperately need to be taken.
Development organizations comprise the fourth group. There is a danger, as witnessed in other development activities, that NGOs will only help those few people who happen to be involved in their specific project, or that they set their agenda without any input of those they seek to help. If the advocacy and programmes waged by FWAG and NGOs for farm workers are not intimately connected to a group that represents farm workers (such as GAPWUZ), progressive change for all farm workers is unlikely to happen.
As for farm workers themselves, they live with the knowledge that advocating for change leaves them open to reactions from their bosses. Only a strong GAPWUZ that can truly represent them both with the commercial farmers and the government is likely to be able to protect the workers from negative repercussions of this sort. In Search of Hope has helped to set in motion the possibility that the basic, but long neglected, demands of farm workers are met. At the very least, it has helped to publicize the predicament of farm workers in Zimbabwe as expressed in the words of the farm worker above, "We are badly treated. We are people and we are the producers . . . "
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