NEW commercial farmers who benefited from Zimbabwe’s fast-track land reform programme are now hamstrung by a lack of labour to work their fields.
resenting farmers and farm workers admit that the shortage of labour is acute, and have warned that urgent action is needed to revive the agricultural sector, thrown into disarray by the land redistribution programme that began in 2000.
An estimated 300 000 farm workers were displaced during the government’s accelerated land reform programme, when white commercial farmers were removed from their farms to make way for black settlers.
Only a small number of the workers remained on the land because of the poor wages being offered by the new farmers, who were struggling to get on their feet. Some preferred to return home, while others sought employment in nearby towns or took up illegal gold panning.
“The problem is very serious, and even though there are other factors like drought, there is hardly anything going on on the farms. Farm workers are shunning us for a number of reasons, but the foremost factor is that of wages,” acknowledged Denford Chimbwanda, chairman of the Grain and Cereal Producers’ Association.
“The workers are asking for unrealistic wages,” he told Irin. “Farmers are still struggling to consolidate their activities and there is no way in which the workers should ask for so much, otherwise we will collapse.”
There was a real danger, Chimbwanda said, of the maize and wheat that had already matured rotting in the fields because the new commercial farmers could not get enough labour to harvest their crops.
The minimum monthly wage for a general farm worker is currently $169 000, but according to the latest report by the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, an average family requires $1,5 million a month to live on.
Memory Murombedzi, a veteran journalist who now owns 300 hectares of land, acknowledged that she was battling to find labour she could afford to help with her 10 hectares of tobacco.
She has only nine full-time workers and has to rely on part-time labour from the nearby town of Chegutu. Every morning she sends a tractor 30 km to town in search of workers, but it sometimes returns empty because the going daily rate was more than she could afford.
“I have been forced to contract workers, but they do not report for duty regularly,” said Murombedzi. “They mostly prefer go to the farmer paying the most.”
Julius Ngorima, president of the Zimbabwe Association of Tobacco Growers, said if the current labour shortage persisted, production would continue to suffer. “This tragedy could not have come at a worse time. The production of tobacco is a labour-intensive process and the leaf could rot if it is not speedily cured,” he told Irin.
Before the advent of the land reform programme, Zimbabwe accounted for 19% of the world’s total tobacco exports, but since then production has slumped from 237 000 mt in 2000 to 60 000 mt in 2004, according to a US Department of Agriculture report.
Ngorima said most of the displaced farm workers preferred to work two or three times a week, adding that some of the contract farmers now also owned their own plots, which required their attention.
“While it is desirable to pay these workers more than the minimum wage, the economy is generally in bad shape. Inflation also affects the employers, who have to contend with spiralling prices of inputs, farm equipment and huge electricity bills,” he explained.
The Herald, recently reported that the electricity supply of a significant number of new farmers had been discontinued because of unpaid bills, jeopardising the tobacco curing process.
However, the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ) has accused farmers of exploitation. “We have had a tough time trying to negotiate for better wages for farm workers through the National Employment Council because the new farmers keep on insisting that they do not have the money,” GAPWUZ general secretary Gertrude Hambiya said.
Ngorima urged the government to assist farmers with loans, to be disbursed in good time, part of which could be used to pay workers proper wages.
But GAPWUZ cautioned that not all farmers had the welfare of their labourers at heart. “We are aware that farmers misrepresent facts, by and large,” Hambiya alleged. -— Irin.