Progressive Agriculture and Allied Industries Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PAAWUZ) says working conditions for most farm workers are appalling and need to be urgently addressed. Its leader, Raymond Sixpence (RS), told NewsDay (ND) senior reporter Obey Manayiti that the union is trying to engage government and other stakeholders to help improve the plight of farm workers. Below are excerpts of the interview:
INTERVIEW: Obey Manayiti
ND: Can you briefly tell us what you stand for?
RS: Progressive Agriculture and Allied Industries Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe is a registered trade union in terms of the Labour Act and we represent workers in the agriculture industry. We have been operating since 2013, but were registered in 2016. We have a membership of about 17 000 people.
ND: Since you became operational, what have you managed to achieve?
RS: Farm workers have been working for many hours outside the stipulated times and the unions that were there before us did nothing to correct that.
Workers were subjected to many injustices and they suffered in silence because no one was there to fully represent them.
You will find out that during the tobacco planting season, workers will be working overtime, but they will not be paid for that. We are trying to stop that and we have already made strides in that regard.
There are issues of child labour as well that we are dealing with. Another issue which is very important is that farm workers are paid peanuts.
They get about $70 to $80 per month, and this is far below the poverty datum line.
There are also issues of underdevelopment in farms. You will find that some have no schools and children have to walk for quite a long distance and this is of concern to us, especially these days.
We do not expect such things to be happening and also, there are issues to do with shortage of medical facilities.
Workers do not have medical aid and they are expected to make ends meet with that $80 and to us, this is unfair because the majority cannot afford to pay their medical bills.
In short, there is a lot of unfairness at the farms and, as a union, we are trying very hard to put a stop to that.
Workers’ rights need to be addressed and with right people in place, their plight will be addressed.
ND: In your view what should be done to correct the situation?
RS: Look, farming is a very lucrative business and this is why agriculture is one of the top income earners for this country.
The bulk of the foreign currency that we have comes from agriculture, but in turn, the workers are not being appreciated.
Our issue is that there must be reasonable wages which are sustainable for the farm workers and above that, we want them to be given a cocktail of incentives such as medical aid so that they access primary health care with ease.
Their living conditions need to be improved and we are going to continue fighting for that.
ND: Are the workers paid timeously?
RS: In rare cases, yes, but the fact of the matter is that the majority of farmers owe their workers.
They don’t pay them on time and we have had to take some farmers to court over that.
What we want is for the farmers to respect the rights of their employees and start treating them with respect.
Some farmers owe workers’ wages for periods of up to five months, and it is not acceptable.
ND: Who in particular often defaults paying wages?
RS: These are powerful politicians, connected white farmers and the Chinese as well. We have a problem of farmers who do not pay their workers because of their political muscle and in most cases if workers complain, they just fire them and hire other people.
Politicians must separate their political office from farming business. Some people prefer to take their matters to court knowing very well that they will frustrate the processes and workers will continue to suffer.
We have many cases of farmers beating up their workers or taking advantage of their illiteracy to avoid paying them. However, we have taken to court a lot of politicians on the issue of defaulting on payments.
ND: You talked about underdevelopment and biting poverty at many farms. What are you doing to have this corrected?
RS: There are no adequate schools and health facilities in most cases. If we don’t have clinics, many workers are just dying because they cannot access basic medication and we have cases where people rely on traditional medicines, but the danger of that is that some medicines are not tested or in some cases, they are given wrong dosage or diagnosis.
The government should prioritise having crucial amenities in farms and we want that to be addressed as a matter of policy.
ND: We have the cholera epidemic ravaging the country and you talked about shortage of clinics, how safe are your members?
RS: Fortunately, we haven’t recorded any cholera case at the farms, but we are actually on a national conscientisation drive so that farm workers are on the lookout and protect themselves.
ND: As an organisation, what are you doing to ensure the plight of farm workers is addressed and their conditions improved?
RS: We are engaging the National Employment Council, Labour ministry, National Social Security Authority and other stakeholders to have the wages and working conditions reviewed.
As we negotiate further, we want the money they are getting to be doubled for them to sustain themselves.
Prices of basic commodities and other services are rising each day and workers have nowhere to turn to and they are the worst hit by this current cash crisis.
We know for a fact that the farmers get incentives from the government and they must extend those to their workers, but that is not happening.
We want our members to get bonuses, a total shift from what we are seeing now. Farmers must stop abusing their workers.
ND: We have had the land reform programme, where the majority benefited, did your members benefit anything?
RS: We are engaging government and we have been writing letters to the Minister of Agriculture to consider giving out land to farm workers.
The biggest challenge to that is we have some unions who were busy telling their workers not to apply for land during the land reform exercise and now people are regretting.
We are still waiting for a response from relevant people, but we want that to be addressed as a matter of urgency as well.