Child labour remains one of the greatest challenges globally and countries have to eradicate it in view of the rampant use of young children as farm labourers.
Children, some as young as 10, have become a critical source of labour in several parts of the world, especially in Africa and Latin America.
There are no signs the practice might come to an end since several governments remain reluctant to effectively tackle the issue.
Zimbabwe is no exception, where its thriving sugarcane industry in Chiredzi district in the south-eastern part of the country has relied mostly on child labour for survival.
Young children continue to be employed as farm labourers on huge sugarcane plantations although the country’s labour laws are explicitly clear it is not only illegal but a gross human rights abuse to employ children.
The country’s controversial land reform programme during the past two decades has seen many of the country’s elite, including politicians and senior civil servants, become owners of huge farms and sugarcane plantations.
These government officials, including cabinet ministers, remain the main culprits in terms of using young children as part of their labour force on their newly acquired sugarcane farms.
Child labour continues to haunt the country’s sugar industry. The situation looks set to remain for years as the government turns a blind eye to the plight of young boys and girls who now keep the country’s sugar industry afloat.
Young girls are employed as irrigators of the sugarcane crop while young boys are employed as cane cutters and irrigators.
Life for William, 13, is miserable since he dropped out of school at 9 when his parents died.
His elder brothers emigrated to South Africa, leaving the young boy with no option but to work in the sugarcane plantations for survival.
Lot one of Allandale plantation in the country’s sugarcane growing area of Chiredzi is where William calls home today after being employed there two years ago as a cane cutter and irrigator.
Dreams of becoming a medical doctor have turned into a nightmare since irrigating and cutting the sugar cane crops is now his job where he is paid $80 a month.
Ironically, the plantation is owned by a former minister in the Zimbabwean government.
The prospects of William returning to school to further his education have been dashed.
“My father used to work here when this farm was owned by a white farmer and he used to tell me that as workers they were paid decent wages in addition to food rations and protective clothing,” said William.
“Sometimes we go for months without pay and we are told that all those who are not happy with the working conditions are free to leave, and because I have no other source of income I remain glued to this farm,” he said.
“Food rations are no longer made available by our employer since every worker has to buy food for him or herself.
“As it stands I am not dreaming of going back to school but given a chance and financial resources I would want to further my education,” he said.
“When I was at school my aim was to become a medical doctor but I do not think I will become a professional in my life.”
Irrigators and cane cutters working for black sugar cane farmers in the country’s lowveld are getting a raw deal.
They are paid low wages despite the fact their work is tiring.
Sheila is a 12-year-old girl who works as an irrigator at Allandale plantation. She made it to Grade 2 and has been on the farm for 18 months.
“We wake up as early as 2am every morning to get into the fields to irrigate the sugarcane crop. I dropped out of school because my parents were very poor and could not afford to pay my school fees,” she said.
“The situation at this farm is unbearable since sometimes we are paid in kind. We are sometimes given clothes or shoes to put on as a form of payment,” she said.
“Whenever we complain about the working conditions we are threatened with dismissal.
“Most of the workers at this plantation are just young boys and girls aged below 13 years of age,” said Sheila.
In addition to low wages, the young workers are ordered to look for their own protective clothing to wear while at work.
“Putting on protective clothing is a luxury at this farm since no one working here is given protective clothing,” said Sheila.
Over the years sugarcane producers, including multi-national companies, used to provide cane cutters with protective clothing which included rubber gloves and overalls, among other things.
The sugar industry in Zimbabwe employs more than 20000 people, of which more than half are young children.
Black sugarcane farmers contribute about half of the country’s total production while the other half is produced by Tongaat Huletts, a multinational South African company.
Zimbabwe Sugar Milling Workers’ Union official Mike Shoko says the plight of farm workers, especially young children working on sugarcane farms, should be addressed as a matter of urgency.
He said workers’ unions were tired of labour cases being brought before them for arbitration as black farmers continued to exploit children and their other workers on a daily basis.
“These children need to be helped by the government,” said Shoko.
“The government should come up with new legislation which protects farm workers as black farmers continue to violate labour laws through harassing, underpaying and even not paying their workers,” he said.
Labour lawyer Partson Munjoma said the Zimbabwe government was reluctant to come up with new and tougher legislation to protect farm workers because most of those in government now were the ones who were responsible for exploiting young children as farm labourers.
“You have to realise that most of the farms in the country are now in the hands of blacks and most of them are in government, hence they will not support any moves to protect children from being used as farm workers,” he said.
The country’s Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Development Joseph Made feels the country already has enough legislation to protect young children from abuse.
“We have sound laws in place that guarantee the rights of children and these laws should be invoked to punish whoever is abusing children in whichever form,” said Made.
Zimbabwe is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children.
Member countries that have ratified the convention are bound to it by international law.
Hundreds of people, mainly ruling Zanu-PF supporters, cabinet ministers and senior civil servants, grabbed huge sugarcane farms during the height of the country’s chaotic land reform programme.
However, the Sugarcane Growers’ Association secretary-general Freedom Madungwe said it was better to employ young children than to let them live on the streets.
“We condemn child labour but given the current situation it is better to employ these young children and even allow them to further their education,” he said.