HomeLocalRampant child labour sours Lowveld’s sugarcane industry

Rampant child labour sours Lowveld’s sugarcane industry

Children from vulnerable families are cutting sugarcane in the Lowveld for a living


THE human being that emerges from the cane fields is all black except eyes and teeth.

Soot from burnt-out cane ready for harvesting camouflages even his white, threadbare clothes. Without taking a closer look, you would mistake him for an alien.

Save for the all-black complexion, nothing seems amiss, but the cane cutter at the Lowveld sugar plantation looks older than his age.

The youthful cutter — furiously hacking and whacking ripe cane and bundling it — is of school-going age.

He has traded his ballpoint-pen for the machetes used to slash cane ready for milling into sugar, braving snakes and wild pigs that forage in the cane fields and risking diseases and injuries.

His identity has been concealed for ethical reasons.

While his age mates are busy in school, for him and several others from the nearby Chingwizi settlement — consisting of hapless and impoverished 18 000 flood survivors displaced from the country’s biggest inland dam, Tugwi Mukosi — they are at work.

This has been their daily routine for almost three years and the practice did not start with the flood survivors, a four-month investigation by The Standard in conjunction with the Information Development Trust (IDT) revealed.

They are providing cheap and ready labour without protective clothing for sugarcane outgrowers in the sweeping, swashbuckling cane plantations — the majority of them ruling Zanu PF party bigwigs who invaded plots from sole sugar producer, Tongaat Hullet — over the past decade.

The teens, who are doing this work previously done by migrant workers, also risk falling into the deadly canals that draw water from Lake Mutirikwi, which have become easy suicide methods for people in the Lowveld who just throw themselves into the ferocious waters.

Last year, a Form One pupil at Hippo Valley High School was burnt to death in a raging inferno in a sugarcane field in Chiredzi after she was allegedly chased away from home by her parents, the police confirmed.

“Our parents could not afford to send us to school after the flooding disaster in the dam basin four years ago,” says the young cane cutter, insisting he took the cane-cutting job when his parents could not afford school fees at Nyuni Secondary School that comprises of makeshift pole-and- dagga structures.

The minor is one of the children who were relocated with their families from Chivi and Masvingo South to Chingwizi settlement in Nuanetsi Ranch, located 150km from their original homes.

The resettlement is a long distance away from schools.

This publication caught up with him and other child cane cutters in Mkwasine Estates’ Porepore section, where he said he is given $120 a month through mobile payment platform Ecocash — a salary, which erratically comes or sometimes is substituted by second-hand clothes or a few groceries.

The monthly wage for cane workers is pegged at $180, according to the Progressive Agriculture and Allied Industries Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe.

Upon realising he was talking to a journalist, the young cane cutter refused to divulge the identity of his employer, saying he was afraid he would be fired.

The area has new, indigenous farmers who benefited from the chaotic land reform programme implemented haphazardly from the year 2000.

“Because we are so many from Chingwizi, the farmers take advantage of us,” the boy said.

“We have earned a nickname, ‘$1 for two’ because of the low wages offered to us. Sometimes, we are not given money, but food and second-hand clothes.”

He said he dropped out of school at Nyuni Secondary School while in Form Two aged 15.

A teacher at Nyuni Primary School who spoke on condition of anonymity due to protocol said their enrolment was very low because pupils have to work to raise income for their impoverished parents.

“They are not coming to school. Maybe it is because they have other duties to do as families disintegrated in the process of moving,” the teacher said.

Those whacking cane may be lucky ones compared to their compatriots who work night shifts guarding the cane from wild animals, according to another minor worker in the cane plantations.

“For me this is better than spending the night at a fire in the cold chasing away dangerous animals without any weapons, save for beating drums,” says Tendai (not real name), originally from Checheche, who said he got employed after dropping out of school when he was in Form Two.

“I come from Checheche and my parents could not afford to pay fees for me, so I looked for a job as a cane cutter when I was 16. I do not see myself going back to school, this is now my life,” he said.

The practice is going on secretly under the cover of the lush green fields and is difficult to detect since it is done in the underworld, save for when it is cutting season.

But by indications of some who are old enough but were employed while still minors like Tendai, child labour has been going on for a long time now.

According to a 2016 report by the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), more than 1 000 pupils from Chingwizi settlement dropped out of school in 2016.

The report — titled The Dilemma of Learning at Chingwizi —noted that distant satellite schools faced great challenges,which hindered enrolment.

“Initially, there were about 4 300 pupils for both secondary and primary schools in Chingwizi, but when we carried out an audit, the figures had dropped to about 3 000 pupils,” the PTUZ report said.

“There could be many factors behind the decrease in pupil population, one being distance and, to a greater extent, hunger.”

The recent United Nations Human Development Report for Zimbabwe, which assesses some human development indicators, says the primary school dropout rate (% of primary school cohort) in the country stands at 23,1%, while the inequality in education stands at 16,8%.

At least 68,5% of the population is employed in the agriculture industry, according to the report.

A Chingwizi parent, whose identity has been concealed to protect her child, said she had no option, but to let her teenage son look for employment since she is ill and cannot fend for herself and two other children.

“I am a widow and also chronically ill,” she said.

“Usually, I am bedridden so I had no option, but to let my eldest child, who is 15 years old, look for a job so that we get food, otherwise we will all starve.
“I am sure he will raise extra money so that he will continue with his studies latter.”

Sugarcane farming is a lucrative business in the Lowveld and the new farmers rose overnight to become the nouveau riche of the small Chiredzi town, but their workers have nothing to show for it, save for their unrewarded labour.

For a bundle, which is a tonne, they are paid RTGS$20, which is less than the normal RTGS$30 paid to established cane cutters in the area.

Progressive Agriculture and Allied Industries Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe secretary-general Raymond Sixpence confirmed child labour was rife in the cane fields owned by new farmers.

“We received the reports of child labour in the sugarcane plantations,” he said.

“We will engage the new farmers in the Lowveld and buyers of their cane and the government over the issue.

“Farmers should not employ child labourers.

“Worse still, they are underpaying them. Even if they employed adults and still underpay them, we were still going to condemn that.

“We do not have untouchables.Whether black farmers or white farmers, they should pay workers the wages agreed upon by employers and employees.”

The consumer basket of goods for a family of five has shot up to RTGS$750 per month, according to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, while official inflation figures are close to 100%.

Sixpence said the use of child labourers in the sugar industry may be a tip of the iceberg in the general agriculture industry.

However, Labour deputy minister Lovemore Matuke said he was unaware of the practice, but promised to investigate the allegations.

“I am not aware of that, but we will do our own investigations and we will share our findings with the media,” he said.

“We cannot let that happen under government’s watch.”

Tongaat Hullet Zimbabwe corporate affairs manager Adelide Chikunguru said her organisation adheres to internationally prescribed labour standards and said her company does not take cane from farmers implicated in using child labourers.

She also said Tongaat sponsors awareness programmes for the new farmers to frown at child labour.

“Tongaat Hullet is strongly against child labour and we sponsor awareness campaigns on child labour with the new farmers. They even sign clauses where we have agreements with them that we do not accept cane from farmers who practice the vice,” Chikunguru said.

“We do not support child labour and we condemn the practice in the strongest terms.”

Sugarcane farmers unions in the Lowveld said employing under-age labourers would sour the sweet sugarcane industry.

One of the farmers’ associations in the Lowveld, the Zimbabwe Sugar Cane Farmers’ Development Association, said they have an agreement with sugar producer Tongaat Hullet that bars them from using child labour.

“We have an agreement with Tongaat Hullet which states that for you to deliver your cane to them, you must not employ under-age children. We are our brothers’ keepers’,” said Edmore Veterai, chairman of the association. Its actual membership could not be established by the time of going to print as he said he does not share such details with the media.

Admore Hwarare, chairman of another farmers’ union in the Lowveld, the Commercial Sugarcane Farmers’ Association, which is arguably the biggest by representation, said their members are not involved in the practice.

“I disassociate my union members from that. It is a bad thing which is against fair labour practices and human rights, that is why we have established a National Employment Council (NEC) in agriculture. But sometimes you may see a farmer who goes to the field with his children or grandchildren, especially during the school holidays, and then you think it’s child labour, when it is not. It is just in our culture to train our kids to work in the fields. But, of course, if you see where there are genuine child labourers hired and paid, help us fight the scourge,” Hwarare said.

There are 1 248 sugarcane outgrowers in the Lowveld, according to Veterai, who employ 7 000 workers, adding on to the 13 000 under Tongaat Hullet.

But the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), which also carried out studies on child labour in the tobacco industry, confirmed having received reports of child labour in the Lowveld cane plantations and said they were yet to ascertain how rampant the practice was.

“It is true, we have heard such reports in the Lowveld, they are grossly underpaid and denied a chance to go to school. However, you will not find the same at Tongaat, but the new farmers are using kids who are not part of their families. We will engage the ministry of Labour to see how rampant it is,” said Michael Kandukutu, the national organiser for the ZCTU.

In August 2017, child activist Magret Chanaiwa told then vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa and Justice permanent secretary Virginia Mabhiza at a constitutional outreach meeting in the Lowveld that child labour was rampant on plantations owned by ruling party officials.

Mabhiza said the government was unaware of the practice and urged residents to report the cases to the police.

Masvingo provincial police spokesperson Inspector Charity Mazula professed ignorance on the involvement of under-age children in the Chiredzi cane fields, but promised to look into the matter.

“I have not heard about it and no report has been made yet, but I will have to verify,” she said.

According to the United States of America annual country report on human rights practices and child labour findings, which covers internationally recognised individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements, child labour exists in Zimbabwe’s agriculture industry though the extent of the problem is unknown.

“Forced labour, including by children, occurred, although the extent of the problem was unknown. Adults and children were subjected to forced labour in agriculture and domestic service in rural areas, as well as domestic servitude in cities and towns,” the report says.

“Forced labour by children occurred in the agricultural, street vending, herding, forestry, fishing, artisanal gold and chrome mining, and domestic sectors.

“Children also were used in the commission of illegal activities, including gambling and drug smuggling.”

The report cites lack of free basic education for children as increasing the risk of children’s involvement in child labour.

Zimbabwe has ratified all key international conventions concerning child labour, among them the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 138, which stipulates the minimum age for work; the ILO Convention 182, which defines worst forms of child labour; and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which is a legally-binding international agreement setting out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of every child regardless of their race, religion or abilities.

The country also has labour laws which stipulate the minimum age for work like Section 11(3) of the Labour Relations Act (18 years); Section 11(4) of the Labour Relations Act which puts Minimum Age for Hazardous Work at 18 years; and Sections 54 and 55 of the Constitution; and Section 4A of the Labour Relations Act, which prohibits forced labour.

Zimbabwe has established policies related to child labour, including its worst forms like National Action Plan (NAP) to Combat Child Labour (NAP); United Nations Development Assistance Framework UNDAF (2012–2015). But the US Human rights report says NAP is yet to be fully implemented.

The report on Zimbabwe says despite the government’s National Action Plan, child labour remained endemic especially in the informal sectors where inspectors received no training addressing child labour and do not closely monitor it.

These gaps include underfunding and lack of training for labour inspectors, policy gaps, inadequacy of social programs and poor coordination mechanisms of government efforts on child labour between the Child Protection Committees, National Steering Committee to Address the Worst Forms of Child Labour, and the Ministry-Level Committee on Children’s Issues.

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