Farm labour shortage threatens food production

"The majority of our members have indicated that their farming activities have been severely affected by the shortage of manpower to use on the farms. We are poorly prepared, and our hands as farmers are tied because we don’t have the money to keep the farm workers," said Denford Chimbwanda, president of the Grain and Cereal Producers Association (GCPA).

Chimbwanda told IRIN that although banks have finally agreed to provide loans, with the government’s offer letters on the land as collateral, the slow pace of approving loans was not taking into account the window period of the main planting season.

Offer letters, or 99-year leases, have been issued to farmers settled on land redistributed from white-owned commercial farms to landless blacks in President Robert Mugabe’s fast-track land reform programme, which began in 2000. Banks have only recently started accepting the offer letters as collateral for loans.

Renson Gasela, an agricultural analyst and the secretary for agriculture in the breakaway faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Arthur Mutambara, told IRIN that many farmers who had sold their previous harvest to the GMB – the sole grain purchaser in Zimbabwe – were still awaiting payment, further turning the screws on their cash flow.

"Farm workers are deciding that enough is enough. I am aware that some farmers have managed to keep some of their workers, on the promise that once they get paid by the GMB they will settle the wage arrears, but these promises have gone for too long, forcing them [workers] to look for other sources of income," he said.

In some cases wages had not been paid for three months, "and this has led to frustration among the employees, who, together with their families, need to subsist on a daily basis," Gasela said.

In the first quarter of 2009 nearly seven million Zimbabweans depended on food aid, but a relatively successful harvest of 1.14 million metric tons of maize, the staple food, in June 2009 – a two-fold increase on the previous year – brought optimism that the country was turning the corner on its food insecurity.

''It is easy to notice the absence of farm workers, who, in the past, would be seen busy in the fields at this time of the year''

"Moving across the country, you cannot believe that we are already in the main farming season. Only a privileged few have managed to till their land, using tractors and the diesel that they managed to buy, but the story is different with the majority of farmers," Gasela said.

"It is easy to notice the absence of farm workers, who, in the past, would be seen busy in the fields at this time of the year. Instead, they can be found by the roadside selling firewood, or fish from nearby dams," he commented.

Fleeing farms

Tapiwa Zivira, spokesperson for the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union (GAPWUZ), told IRIN that labourers were "fleeing" farms because wages were not being paid.

"Farming should be for those who are prepared to meet the costs that go with agriculture. It is disturbing that the wages we are asking them to pay our members are way below the poverty datum line, but the farm owners still insist that they are too much," Zivira said.

Farm workers are paid a maximum of US$30 a month, when they are paid, and the GAPWUZ bid for a minimum monthly wage of US$50 has so far fallen on deaf ears.

Low wages, non-payment of wages, and poor living and working conditions were accelerating the flight of farm labourers. Zivira said children were being employed in their place "because they [farmers] know that these minors lack the capacity to demand what is due to them".

Another round of "farm invasions" by high-ranking officials in Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party – after the formation of the unity government in February 2009 – meant ongoing instability on farms. More than 3,000 families had been forced to migrate from farms whose ownership had changed since February, with some finding refuge by the roadside, Zivira said.

Making ends meet

Ennia Samson, 40, a widow of Malawian origin, moved to a business centre in the Murombedzi district of Mashonaland West Province, about 65km northwest of the capital, Harare, because ownership of the farm she was raised on changed hands in March.

"When the new farmer arrived he encouraged us to stay, saying he would look after us well, but by the time I left in September only a few workers had been given a maximum of US$15," Samson told IRIN.

Other women and girls had left the farm and were now domestic workers or had gone into commercial sex work. Samson had cleaned shops at the business centre and managed to raise the capital to start a small second-hand clothes business

She now lived in a makeshift shelter with her two school-going children. "Even though we are living as squatters, life is much better here than on the farm, where we were almost starving," Samson said.