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Southern Africa Report Archive

A sobering account of the current plight of Zimbabwean farmworkers. (jbv)

vol 9 no 4

The forgotten fifth: Farm workers in Zimbabwe
Blair Rutherford

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 9, No 4, March 1994
Page 28



Blair Rutherford, a Montreal based researcher, has recently returned from Zimbabwe.

Every Saturday evening during the rainy season on the commercial farms surrounding Karoi in northwestern Zimbabwe, hundreds of farm workers fill the gravel roads and windy paths that lead from barbed wire-fenced tobacco fields to scattered plots of assorted crops. The workers have finished their six-day work week on commercial farms and are heading to their individual rural home in the adjacent Communal Lands, the name given during the colonial period to the land reserved for Africans. The men are returning home to help out with farm chores and check on their relatives, bringing sacks of maize meal or perhaps bags of fertilizer and pocket money. The next evening they will head back to the crowded compound on the commercial farm, occasionally carting back a bag of maize or assorted vegetables to sell and perhaps accompanied by a relative looking for work.

Not all farm workers have their own plot of land in a nearby Communal Land or resettlement area, but those who do spread their own and their families' energy between the two homes for both security and investment reasons. Although the lifestyle on the home farm is seen to be healthier than that on the farm compound, working on commercial farms is familiar - many workers grew up on one - and the monthly wages are attractive. As well, farm workers can often get agricultural inputs like fertilizer and seeds - and at a better price - for their own farm, which will help to supplement both their meagre diet and their meagre wages. A home independent from the commercial farm is also invaluable in case a worker leaves his job. For a farm worker's life, from the conditions of the compound to the possibility of credit and overtime pay, depends heavily on the attitude of the commercial farm operator. As farm workers put it, their lives depend almost solely on "the laws of the white man/owner." Indeed, Zimbabwe's two million farm workers and their families are so dependent on farm owners that they become virtually invisible in most of the country's policy and academic discussions on democracy and development. Rural Zimbabwe is usually seen as comprising two dichotomous worlds - that of the approximately 4,000 commercial farmers (who still are disproportionately white) and that of peasant farmers of the Communal Lands and resettlement areas. Farm workers are rarely mentioned in discussions of this "dual economy." This way of understanding is especially evident when it comes to "the Land Question" - the dominant forum for discussing democracy and development in rural Zimbabwe.

President Robert Mugabe's Zanu (PF) won the first election of Independence in 1980 and the following two elections on the platform of addressing colonial inequities by redistributing land from white commercial farmers to land-poor black peasants. The Lancaster House Constitution, which ended the liberation war in 1979, forced the government to acquire commercial farms on a willing buyer/willing seller basis and to pay in scarce foreign exchange for the first decade of Independence. This condition was a major factor in limiting the amount of land that went to resettlement farms. After altering the Constitution in 1990, the government passed the Land Acquisition Act in 1992 allowing it to designate farms to purchase at government-set prices. It has already begun designating land and is also overhauling its resettlement policy.

The Act has caused a major stir within Zimbabwe and in international circles. The debate has mainly centred on the question of economic productivity between the two rural actors of policy discourse. White farmers and their domestic and international supporters point out that commercial farms are the backbone of the Zimbabwean economy and warn that breaking them up into small farms and giving them to "subsistence farmers" will lead to "rack and ruin." The government and its supporters argue that aside from the necessity of redistribution to correct historic injustices, increasing the number of small African farmers will not cause the economy to suffer. Since Independence when the government began to provide proper infrastructure, peasant farmers have demonstrated they can substantially increase production for the market.

Despite their large numbers and vital economic role in rural Zimbabwe, being neither "white farmers" nor "African peasants," commercial farm workers have been largely neglected in this debate. This neglect reflects their uneven treatment in events since Independence.

In 1979, on the eve of Independence, the transitional government scrapped the Masters and Servants Act, the piece of legislation that since 1899 governed labour relations on commercial farms according to the patronizing assumption that the white farm owner knows what is best for the workers. Under that Act there was no minimum wage. Rather, wages were significantly lower than in other industries on the pretext that the farmer also provided rations and housing to the workers. Disciplinary proceedings against workers were permitted for an incredibly wide range of actions, including insulting the farmer's wife or children and refusing to obey a master's command. Nor was it uncommon for farmers to take the law in their own hands and mete out physical punishment against their workers. With Independence, the Zanu (PF) government brought agricultural workers to the same level as other formal employees and effectively challenged the wide-ranging authority the farmer had over workers. Agricultural workers gained the right to organized, which led to the recognition of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ) as the sole union for farm workers. Zanu (PF) established party cells on most farms which helped set up workers committees for workers to pass on grievances to management. Minimum wage legislation for the industry led to remuneration being paid entirely in money (in addition to housing), with wage levels initially set by governmental officials but now negotiated annually by a National Employment Council comprised equally of officials from GAPWUZ and the Agricultural Labour Bureau (ALB), the employers organization. Furthermore, citizenship rights were granted to long-term residents of Zimbabwe born or patrileneally descended from outside the country.

The latter change has been extremely important for farm workers. Many current farm workers, or their (grand-)parents, originally came from Mozambique, Zambia or Malawi to work in colonial Zimbabwe. However, their stay in the colony was conditional on continual employment. With Zimbabwean citizenship, many farm workers have been allowed to get land rights in the Communal Lands of the district they worked in as well as voting rights in national elections.

With the establishment of formal labour relations machinery, minimum wages and the legal possibility of getting land and voting rights, formal rights for farm workers have improved tremendously since 1980. However, many farm workers today disagree with any sentiment of continual progress. They acknowledge that for the first time they enjoy rights and attribute this advance to Mugabe. But, they ruefully note, since the mid-1980s, there has been a reversal of the gains made at Independence.

For them, the cause of this reversal has been a shift in power between workers and owners with the latter gaining back authority lost during the heyday of Independence. Although there is no unanimously held rationale for this shift, the signs they see of this change include the increasing interest of the government in profits over equality as seen by their IMF-inspired Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP); the fact that a number of government ministers are also now commercial farm owners; and that owners and managers have been able to disregard the law and use dismissal as a threat against workers who make demands.

This change is reflected, in recent times, in the forms of worker representation. Most worker committees are seen as ineffective, more a conduit for owners to convey concerns to workers rather than an effective forum for workers to raise issues. The under-staffed GAPWUZ is seen as too distant from daily concerns such as overtime pay, the use of dangerous chemicals without protection, and violence from foremen and managers, while being completely out-of-touch with farm workers' living conditions. At best, workers see GAPWUZ as only helpful in the final stages of being dismissed. If a permanent worker is fired without proper leave-pay, GAPWUZ is effective in getting these benefits to him (most commercial farmers refuse to hire women workers as permanent workers and, consequently, women as contract workers are denied the same rights and are largely ignored by GAPWUZ and workers committees).

Today any improvements of farm workers' living conditions tend to come from the goodwill of farmers, often in the form of subsidized maize-meal and meat (crucial especially during the 1992 drought) and interest-free loans for agricultural inputs for workers' Communal Land farms. The regulations decided at the National Employment Council often are enforced only because of the sporadic and often isolated struggles of a few workers who fight to see that the laws governing over-time, standardized working days and higher piece-work wages are obeyed. If management refuses to negotiate, the workers often quiet down or follow the popular resistance strategy during colonial days - they leave the farm.

As for conditions on the compound, it depends entirely on the farm owner. Until last year legislation governing commercial farms came mainly from Rural Councils, the local government body elected by commercial farm owners (and renters). Although farm workers comprised the vast majority of people living on these farms and are the predominant users of clinics and schools under the Rural Councils' jurisdiction, they had no representation in local government. Not surprisingly, when it came to making by-laws regarding minimum standards for housing, water and services for the farm compounds, there were none made. Ultimately, it is up to the farm owner to set standards. Although there are some farm compounds which have a standard of housing and water better than some of Harare's high density suburbs, this is the exception rather than the rule.

It seems likely that this pattern will continue in the future despite reforms to local government. The 65 Rural-District Councils now represent and administer all settled rural lands including commercial farming areas, Communal Lands and resettlement lands. But within the defined commercial farming areas, the property requirements of voting rights remain. Instead of having the right to vote, farm workers and their co-residents are given one or two Ministerially-appointed representative(s) on the new body. Their disenfranchisement continues.

This lack of local and national representation outside of GAPWUZ hurts farm workers at (inter)national level debates. This is readily apparent in current discussion over resettlement policy. Many development experts and politicians are calling for stricter control over candidates for the new resettlement policy currently being formulated. They claim that failures of the resettlement programme during the 1980s were largely the result of selecting landless people as settlers on resettlement schemes as opposed to properly trained African peasants. "Commercial farm workers" have been most often singled out as being the group most responsible for these "failures."

Since many farm workers went from being classified as foreigners to citizens after Independence and often had no land rights in Zimbabwe before then, in many districts farm workers make up a large number on resettlement farms. Now past mistakes in resettlement policy are being explained by claiming that farm workers lack the work ethic for "development" and hence should be automatically excluded from future resettlement programs. As the Minister of State in the Ministry of National Affairs, Employment Creation and Cooperatives, Cde. Fay Chung pithily put it, "Zimbabwe has little room for reform mistakes that it made in the early 1980s. `Why should we feel we must give land only to illiterate workers who were formerly working on farms?' Chung asks" ( Weekly Mail, September 4 to 10, 1992).

Commercial farm workers have a lot to lose from a resettlement policy that removes their jobs through land designation and specifically excludes them from resettlement schemes. Such a policy would undermine the livelihood of tens of thousands of farm workers and their families. As those in the Karoi area show, commercial farm workers have been able to improve their economic opportunities since Independence by operating on both sides of the so-called "dual economy." However, their situation is quite precarious and arbitrary given the present situation. By reducing rural Zimbabwe to commercial farmers and Communal Land farmers, current formulations of the Land Question at best neglect the lives and demands of commercial farm workers. At worst, they view farm workers as a threat to future policy. If democracy and development really are to be pursued in rural Zimbabwe, the situation of nearly a fifth of the national population needs to be addressed.

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