The plight of ex-commercial farm workers

Almost four years after the government of Zimbabwe adopted the fast-track land redistribution programme, thousands of ex-commercial farm workers find themselves displaced and without employment.

In 2000 the government embarked on the controversial initiative that drove thousands of white farmers off their estates, saying it intended to resettle land-hungry black Zimbabweans.

More than 300,000 farm workers who had been employed by the former commercial farmers were also displaced in the process.

The Farm Community Trust (FCT), an NGO seeking to promote the welfare of farm workers, bemoans the impact of the fast-track programme on the lives of former commercial farm workers.

"The fast-track land reform programme created a class of Zimbabwean citizens whose lives resemble that of refugees. First, they were displaced from the only homes they had known for whole generations, and what is now emerging is that the former farm workers are finding it difficult to regain stable employment," FCT director Godfrey Magaramombe told IRIN.

He said the problem was pronounced in the provinces of Mashonaland West, Mashonaland East and Mashonaland Central, where the former farm workers were still found in large numbers. The three provinces boast good soils and thus had a high concentration of commercial farms.

A presidential land review of the fast-track programme found that less than one percent of former farm workers had been resettled as part of the programme. The majority migrated to urban settlements or their rural communal areas, turned to gold panning or remained in the area, offering their labour to the new farmers.

IRIN visited some of the farms in the Chinhoyi area, 140 km northwest of the capital, Harare, and found that former farm workers had set up squatter settlements, mostly on the outskirts of farms that used to be home, but were now allocated to new settlers, particularly in the commercial A2 model schemes.

Living conditions and sanitation facilities were poor. The occupants lived in pole-and-mud huts and used improvised pit latrines or went into the bush. Very few of them had plots to cultivate because the new farmers did not provide them with land. They lacked basic health and education facilities, and children roamed the settlements because many of their parents could not afford school fees.

"In the Mashonaland provinces, in particular, the farm workers have in certain cases moved from their original farms, but have tended to confine themselves in the same districts as where they used to work," Magaramombe said.

Fifty-five year old Silent Bhauleni, a Zimbabwean of Malawian origin living on one of the new farms, told IRIN that providing for his family had been difficult since he lost his job on a commercial farm that was reallocated.

"We have problems with the black farmers. They expect us to provide them with labour on their farms for free, or very little money. Most of the time they complain that they do not have money to pay us, saying they are just starting to farm. As a result, they prefer to engage us as contract workers, allowing us to stay on their farms in return," Bhauleni said.

"This means that we have to depend on the money that we get from the piece jobs we do for them in order to survive, but that is not enough. [So] we move from one farm to the other, doing contract work, and we can do that on several farms a day and receive our money immediately after the stints," he explained.

He said those who refused to do contract work were often chased away by the new farmers, some of whom viewed the displaced farm workers as enemies, since they were generally perceived to have been on the side of white farmers, who had resisted land reform.

Bhauleni admitted that some of the former farm labourers were engaging in illegal activities such as gold panning, gambling and prostitution, in their quest to make ends meet.

"In most cases, the black farmers come with their own labour force, and the new farm workers are usually relatives or people who come from the new farmers' [home areas]," added Bhauleni.

Magaramombe said while the new farmers were offering Zim $38,000 (about US $10.63 at auction rates) per month for a regularly employed farm worker, some white farmers had been paying Zim $90,000 (about US $25.18).

An official with the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ), speaking on condition of anonymity, accused the new farmers of exploitative practices.

"These new farmers are engaging in unfair labour practices, taking advantage of the hopeless situation the farm workers are in. They should give them full-time employment when they decided to keep them on their farms, and pay them in accordance with the labour regulations of the country."

He added: "Granted, most of the farm workers are stranded because they do not have anywhere to go, but by keeping them on the farms, the new farmers are virtually accepting them as their employees, yet they are not treating them like that."

But one of the new farmers, Cyprian Chauke, said the former farm workers were refusing to be employed by the new farmers. "They are reluctant to work for us, saying we pay them too little. However, that is not fair because we offer them the stipulated minimum wage of Zim $38,000. Even then, it should be borne in mind that we cannot afford to give them what is beyond the minimum rate because, as new farmers, we still have a lot to do to build our own capital bases."

Chauke added that the farm workers were refusing to work because they were receiving food handouts from the FCT, and charged that some of them were resorting to stealing produce from surrounding plots.

Magaramombe acknowledged that his organisation was assisting about 100,000 farm workers in selected districts with food, but dismissed the allegation that this was why they were refusing to be employed on a full-time basis.

"It does not follow that because we are assisting the farm workers with food, they are using that as a reason not to seek full-time employment with the new farmers," Magaramombe said. "There are many areas, for instance Mount Darwin in Mashonaland Central, where hundreds of the farm workers do not want to be taken on as regular employees, but we do not provide food to those people."