PRISONERS in Zimbabwean jails have complained over the Zimbabwe Prison Services (ZPS)’s practice of using them as cheap farm labour on government o
Government officials who benefited from the controversial land reform programme are taking advantage of prisoners as a source of cheap labour without additional costs such as accommodation and food.
This has resulted in serious food shortages in prisons as in previous years prisons used to get supplementary food from their farms that are now derelict.
After the chaotic land reform programme, new farm owners threw out farm workers, leaving them stranded and homeless.
Instead of hiring the former farm workers who are entitled to a minimum wage, some of the resettled farmers prefer cheap prison labour despite international treaties to which Zimbabwe is a signatory.
Otto Saki of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said it was unfortunate that government officials are abusing their powers and using prisoners as cheap labour.
“There are standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners. They should not be treated in a vindictive manner as several are suffering from chronic illnesses that cannot be seen by the naked eye,” Saki said.
He said prison labour was intended to rehabilitate and make inmates better people who can be integrated back into society by exposing them not only to agriculture but also to other industries.
“What is pathetic about this system is that these prisoners spend hours working on government officials’ farms yet their own prison farms, which are supposed to provide them with food, are lying idle,” he said.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has strict standards prohibiting such use of prison labour. Zimbabwe ratified an ILO treaty in 1998, undertaking to recognise that it is immoral for private individuals to profit from labour performed by prisoners.
The Prisons Act says that every prisoner may be kept to labour within or outside the precincts of any prison in any part of Zimbabwe and in any employment that may be approved by the minister.
But the Act does not empower the minister to contravene international statutes as governments are supposed to put in place instruments that give full meaning to these standards.
A former inmate at Harare Central Prison who talked to this paper said prisoners are usually taken to the farms very early in the morning and return in the evening.
“They are usually in the fields by 5am until around 4pm,” he said.
This could mean that the ZPS is infringing an international instrument which prohibits prisoners from working for more than ten hours a day. Prisoners should work for at least eight hours under the provisions.
Zimbabwe is a member of the ILO that has strict standards prohibiting use of prison labour by private individuals.
One farmer who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent and has no ties to the government but has used prison labour before said farmers applied for prison labourers and signed a contract with the ZPS.
“We apply for prison labour through the ZPS office and we make payments there too. They give you a contract, under which the prisoners work for seven hours. We are not obliged to provide food for them but usually we do as a way of motivating them,” the farmer who preferred not to be named said.
“But I just feel government is cheating these prisoners who in most cases are badly treated by their wardens while working in the fields yet the money they earn is not being used to improve the living conditions in prisons.”
These prisoners earn daily rates that are equivalent to the statutory farm workers rates.
He said these prisoners are not examined for fitness before they are taken to the farms as there are cases when some prisoners had to be taken back because of ill-health. In the past Zimbabwe has attracted the attention of human rights pressure groups on the unethical use of prisoners as farm labourers.
Efforts to get a comment from the Minister of Justice, Patrick Chinamasa were fruitless.
ZPS also failed to respond to questions sent to them although a recent parliamentary committee report presented this month notes: “At Chikurubi Maximum Prison there are only two working steam pots out of 20. Prisoners are now having two meals instead of three because of limited pots…a supplementary budget had to be allocated to avert a looming crisis on prison rations, toiletries, medical supplies and detergents.”