- Commercial farmers and agricultural experts have warned of a serious shortage of farm workers, which could further cripple agricultural production in Zimbabwe. A deadlocked labour conflict has caused an ever-increasing number of farm workers to head into cities to look for other employment.
Wilson Nyabonde, president of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) told the UN media 'IRIN' that a deadlock over an increase in monthly wages and worsening conditions of service on farms had hastened the exodus of workers, who want salaries raised from about US$ 120 (at the official exchange rate) to at least US$ 500.
This would still be well below the US$ 1,406 a month needed for a family of six to survive in Zimbabwe, where annual inflation is hovering around 1,200 percent. Only Zimbabwe's cities, where unemployment is rampant, can offer jobs paid at such rates.
The CFU said it was difficult to establish how many workers were still on farms. According to a report by the Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe, a non-governmental organisation assisting farm workers, before the fast-track land reform process began in 2000, an estimated 320,000 to 350,000 agricultural workers were employed on commercial farms owned by about 4,500 white farmers. Their dependents numbered around 2 million - over 20 percent of the population.
By the beginning of 2003, the CFU estimated that only about 100,000 workers were still employed on farms.
"The situation on the farms is really bad at the moment. Farm workers are in such short supply that farmers have to share workers in some cases. Employees can leave at any time because they are in demand everywhere, and that has destabilised the sector in many ways," Mr Nyabonde said. "Tobacco faming, which relies heavily on consistent and skilled labour, is the most heavily affected, and we fear that this will have the effect of lowering production ... come harvesting time."
Agricultural production in Zimbabwe, once known as southern Africa's breadbasket, has slumped since 2000, when veterans of the war against colonialism led thousands of landless blacks onto commercial farms and forcefully removed the white farmers.
Commercial farm managers and workers on estates near Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, told 'IRIN' that the labour crisis was deepening each day.
"In November, there were 25 farm workers permanently employed here. Since the beginning of the farming season they have been leaving after it became clear that the farmers will not be able to effect salary increases demanded by the workers, because we are facing a serious financial crisis," said Wilton Cadder, who manages an estate on the outskirts of Bulawayo.
Most farm workers had turned to informal mining and dealing in scarce commodities on the parallel market because these activities offered a better return than working on a farm.
"They do not go too far, they just leave the compound and head for the nearest gold panning camps. Most of them return to the farms to entice their former colleagues to join them. We wish we can offer better salaries, but the conditions do not allow it because of the expensive nature of commercial farming in this country," Mr Cadder told 'IRIN'.
Battling the world's highest annual rate of inflation - now around 1,200 percent - as well as foreign exchange shortages and a fuel price that shot up to US$ 15 a litre this week, agriculture, like all other sectors of the country's economy, has been limping along under the prohibitive costs of importing spare parts for farming equipment and inputs like fertilisers and seeds.
Farm workers told 'IRIN' they would rather be gold panners and informal market dealers than work for US$ 120 a month. "The farmers offer poor salaries, poor accommodation and there is nothing to call a pension. We all have children who need to go to school, get enough food and clothing. No one can make ends meet with that, so we are forced to choose between loyalty to our longstanding employers and the demands of survival," said farm worker Kholwani Sibanda, 40.
Incentives were being offered in a bid to hold on to skilled workers. "Some [tobacco] farmers are now paying performance-related bonuses to ensure that they do not lose specialised workers; others are now offering food and better accommodation in a bid to attract and retain employees," Mr Nyabonde said.
Edward Mkhosi, shadow minister of agriculture in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), called for government intervention to help the financially stricken farmers support their workers.
"My assessment of the situation on the farms shows that there is a great need for the improvement of salaries and working conditions, but the reality is that no farmer can do that at the moment: inputs are not only expensive, they are also scarce," Mr Mkhosi told 'IRIN'.
"All these expenses take a toll on the farmer, who may find it impossible to remain viable by increasing salaries at a time when every other cost is rising. The farmers need government support so that they in turn can improve the working conditions of the workers. The problem lies with the lack of government support for the sector, despite all the rhetoric we hear," he said.
Agriculture Minister Joseph Made was noncommittal during an interview with 'IRIN', but maintained that "government has no business in telling the farmers how to retain their workers - they need to negotiate with them and offer incentives. We are aware that there is a labour crisis on the farms, but it is not so big that we can expect reduced harvests. We have always produced, while the workers shifted from employer to employer."
The government has consistently denied the existence of food shortages. In late 2006, the Grain Marketing Board said Zimbabwe was expecting a surplus above its annual cereal requirement of about 1.9 million metric tonnes. However, independent estimates suggested that only 800,000 tonnes of maize was produced, or less than half the country's annual requirement.
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