FARM workers, bearing the brunt of a poor preparation for the 2008/9 agricultural season, have dwindled by more than 25%.
This is farmers after farmers have abandoned fields to engage in other economic activities to sustain themselves.
Shortages of inputs and poor planning have impacted negatively on the agricultural sector, amid predictions that the season would be a complete write off.
This has worsened the plight of farm workers countrywide as hunger and low wages take their toll.
General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe secretary-general Gertrude Hambira told the Zimbabwe Independent this week that more than 40 000 farm workers had abandoned their jobs because of poor wages and working conditions.
â€œWe are alarmed at the rate we are losing our membership. Many farm workers have turned to other means of survival such as gold panning and cross border trading,â€ Hambira said. â€œOur numbers have dwindled from more than 120 000 to less than 80 000 within a period of one year and we fear that this could worsen.â€
She said employers, particularly the resettled farmers, were paying only the stipulated $5 billion a month and were failing to provide workers with food.
Hambira said her union was inundated by pleas for humanitarian assistance from the workers, some of whom she claimed were now surviving on mangoes and wild fruits.
She said the situation was worsened by the current deadlock between the union and farmers on the need to pay the labourers in foreign currency.
Hambira said the majority of employers were refusing to pay in hard currency arguing that as newly resettled farmers they could not afford to do so.
â€œThere are some (farmers) refusing to pay saying that they are new farmers. How can one continue to be a new farmer from the year 2000? It is just an excuse not to pay workers,â€ she said.
The workers are demanding to be paid US$15 monthly plus basic commodities, which include 20kg of maize, four litres of cooking oil, three bars of washing soap, 4kg sugar and 4kg salt.
The employers, Hambira claimed, were prepared to pay US$2 and provide a bucket of maize, two litres of cooking oil and a packet of salt.
Â â€œWe are far apart in terms of what we are putting on the table as a suitable wage for our members. For one to offer to pay US$2 as payment shows either that person has lost their sanity or that they are just greedy and insensitive,â€ she fumed.
Hambira warned that the failure by employers to pay reasonable wages would further destabilise the agricultural sector, which is already going through a very difficult period.
She said the union had received reports of unrest in some parts of the country such as Mashonaland West and Mashonaland Central where farm workers were refusing to accept local currency as wages.
The Zimbabwe Farmers Union has weighed in to support farm workers getting paid in hard currency and urged the central bank to allow everyone to carry out transactions in hard currency without having to go through the tedious process of applying for a licence.
ZFU vice-president Edward Raradza told the Independent that farmers could only pay their workers in hard currency if they were allowed to trade their produce in foreign currency.
He said it did not make sense to apply for a licence to trade in foreign currency when â€œmangoes and vegetablesâ€ were being sold in hard currency by street vendors.
â€œThe Reserve Bank should allow farmers to sell their produce in foreign currency so that we can pay our workers in the same currency,â€ Raradza said. â€œThe situation on the ground is that everything has been dollarised.â€
The union and employers are set to meet today in an attempt to break the deadlock.
BY KUDZAI KUWAZAÂ