Zimbabwe: child labour a growing problem

 When a lorry carrying farm workers crashed last month outside the capital, Harare, killing 22 people, a number of children were among the fortunate survivors. The tragedy came at the beginning of the new school year, when a rise in school fees had forced many former farm workers - among the poorest of the rural poor - to pull their children out of school. The children on the lorry, aged between 13 and 18, were seeking piecework on neighbouring farms to earn the money to continue with their schooling. Prior to Zimbabwe's land reform programme in 2000, an estimated 320,000 to 350,000 farm workers, often from neighbouring countries, were employed on commercial farms owned by about 4,500 white farmers. Their dependents numbered around two million - more than 20 percent of the national population. As a result of land reform, some 90 percent of commercial farms have been redistributed, the majority broken up and parcelled out to newly settled small-scale farmers. The farm workers, many from neighbouring countries who had lived on the commercial estates for generations, were suddenly faced with an uncertain future. Not only did they lose their jobs, many also lost their entitlement to free housing, education, basic health services and subsidised food. Gertrude Hambira, secretary-general of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers' Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ), told IRIN that the new settlers were able to absorb only a fraction of the former farm workers they found living on the plantations. Many of those of Zimbabwean origin returned to their rural homes, others turned to gold panning or migrated to the towns. The rest were left with little option but to become squatters, surviving by offering their services to the neighbouring farms. The lives of the former farm workers remained precarious, said Hambira. They were barely able to make ends meet and provide sufficiently for their children, thus the high rate of child labour and school absenteeism. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS, which the UN Development Programme's Relief and Recovery Unit estimated at 43 percent on the farms, had led to many child-headed households and still less children in school. Sending a child to school in the rural areas costs about US$110 a year for basics such as school uniforms and fees. But the salaries of farm workers currently range from US$10 to US$20, which must not only cover household expenditures, but also farming inputs like seeds and fertiliser. According to Peter Mazadzise, GAPWUZ national coordinator, some of the newly settled farmers pay their workers no more than US $5.50 a month. Many children are thus pulled out of school by parents who cannot cope. "When parents can't pay, they simply select a few of their children, whom they think can do well, and the rest assist them on the farm," explained Hambira. She added that even many of those in school had to provide some kind of labour to assist with covering education costs. Some areas, such as the tobacco and tea plantations, have an "Earn and Learn" school system where children study some of the time and work part-time to help raise the money for their fees. Source: IRIN/Catholic Information Service Africa

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