22 August 2002

Thousands of labourers face eviction

The plight of thousands of farm workers in Zimbabwe continues to go unnoticed while the international media focuses on the eviction of white farmers, said the country's largest farm workers union on Thursday, Aug 22. Close to 300,000 workers and an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 casual labourers could lose their homes and jobs if a government edict ordering 2,900 white farmers to leave their land is strictly enforced. "Admittedly, the situation is bad all round, but at least the farmers have some recourse to seek legal action to prevent their farms from being taken away. Most farm workers have no education and no means of sustaining themselves in the future," Gertrude Hambira, deputy secretary-general of the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers' Union of Zimbabwe, told IRIN. Hambira said that despite government policy which called on the farm workers to remain on the farms, labourers were being forcibly evicted from the land by the new settlers. "There have been arbitrary arrests and continuous harassment from the authorities which has forced many labourers to flee to nearby towns with just the shirt on their backs. Those who remain face hunger," she said. "Our biggest concern is the dwindling food stocks. Workers are running out of options. It is a dire situation which calls for swift government assistance," Godfrey Magaramombe Executive Director of the Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe (FCTZ), an NGO working with farm labourers, told IRIN. The government and local NGOs have yet to determine how many farm workers have migrated to urban centres, but the number is expected to climb in the next couple of weeks sparking fears of an increase in the numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs). "Many workers cannot afford the rent in big cities like Harare and so what we are seeing is an explosion of squatter camps on the outskirts of the major centres. This is becoming the only alternative," Hambira said.

A government official told IRIN that extensive research into the labour aspect of the land reform programme was ongoing. Spokesman for the Ministry of Labour, Poem Mudyawadikwa said: "There are several programmes aimed at assisting farm workers, but to say that close to 300,000 workers face unemployment and food shortages is a complete exaggeration." Mudyawadikwa declined to elaborate on the details of the government programmes. To date, 16,000 farm workers have received compensation, mainly from their employers. Hambira said that labourers who were registered with the union were entitled to four months pay. "In total the lucky ones can receive up to Z$25,000. But some farmers complain that since they have not been compensated for their land, they have no obligation to pay their workers. With no option, labourers just pack up and leave," she said.

However, farm workers hoping to find some relief in the country's capital, Harare, may be sorely disappointed. A recent study conducted by the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) and the US-funded Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) found that food prices rose between 21 percent between January and June, leaving the urban poor unable to afford basic commodities. "Most households don't have three meals anymore. It is not a matter of asking people to find a substitute to sustain themselves. Alternatives are just not available. We have encouraged people to see how best they can use what is available," CCZ executive director, Elizabeth Nerwande told IRIN. "Those who are working should lobby for their incomes to match the costs of basic goods."

Although the official prices of vegetables, sugar, and maize have remained unchanged since October 2001, the same cannot be said for prices of milk, cooking oil, bread and beef. The study found that beef prices increased by 20 percent in June 2002 while the price of bread increased by 24 percent in May. A loaf of bread in July cost Z$238. Cooking oil had the most dramatic price change of all basic commodities. The price of a 750 ml bottle of cooking oil rose from Z$141 in May to Z$360, an almost 81 percent increase. Many goods sold at the official rate were in short supply. On the parallel market that has sprung up as a result of price controls, commodity prices were much higher. The report called for emergency food aid for the urban poor. FEWSNET estimated a total of 825,000 people in all of Zimbabwe's urban centres would need food assistance from June 2002 to March 2003. (IRIN)

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