By Nevanji Madanhire.
Sunday was Mother’s Day but all the mothers had precious little to celebrate despite horticulture being a high export, most vibrant and diverse sector in Zimbabwe’s agricultural industry.
“Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink” said the sailor on a ship stranded at sea.
The sailor, portrayed in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798) was venting the helplessness of dying of thirst yet surrounded by water that he could not drink because it was too salty. The helplessness aptly describes the plight of mothers working on horticultural farms.
Mother’s Day is a celebrated yearly to honor the mother of the family, as well as motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in society.
“It is difficult to celebrate motherhood when our health is not properly taken care of on the farms,” said a woman – on the condition of anonymity – who coordinates women’s projects on horticulture farms. “A poor female worker cannot even afford sanitary ware; women workers don’t get maternity protection because they are mostly employed on a casual contract basis, so they have little to celebrate on Mother’s Day.”
Challenges for women
About 54 percent of all workers on horticulture farms are women, according to a recent report by the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe (LEDRIZ).
“Farm work is difficult for mothers because they work eight-and-a-half hours a day which makes it difficult to juggle farm work and motherhood,” said Hazvinei Mariko a supervisor on a horticulture farm and a Regional Women Advisory Council (RWAC) representative. “Some farms do not have nurseries where children can spend their day while their mothers are working and the mothers cannot afford to employ child minders. In the end, they don’t return to work once they have delivered because they are not given time to breastfeed,” she said.
She said some women risk the health of their children by bringing them to work, where they are exposed to chemicals and other dangers of life on the farm.
But the children who remain in the compounds face many dangers too, she said.
“Young children who remain in the compounds while their mothers are at work also face many dangers that result from spending their time loitering in the compound. An extreme example is of a young girl aged six who was raped by a 45-year-old man in the compound.”
The conditions in which women farm workers operate do not meet international best practice when measured against ILO standards.
The International Labour Organization defines decent work as work that is productive and gives a fair wage; gives security and social protection for families; gives freedom to express workers’ concerns; provides human dignity; provides equal opportunity and treatment for all women and men.
But these conditions are not met on most farms because women are employed on non-permanent contracts which do not come with most of these conditions.
“The opportunity for most women in the sector to get permanent employment have reduced drastically over the years. This has seen more and more women being employed in more casual, precarious and unclear contracts of employment,” says the LEDRIZ report.
Many women have been separated from their children, having to send them to their own parents who live in remote rural areas.
Sylvia Samupindi, a general hand at a farm just outside the capital Harare is a single mother of two who won’t celebrate Mother’s Day with her children.
“My children live with their father’s parents in Chimanimani,” she said. “I do any work that comes up on the farm which produces tomatoes, onions and flowers; it’s not very secure.” Chimanimani is in Eastern Zimbabwe, fours from Harare.
The General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ), the trade union that stands for the workers’ interest, says it is working hard to persuade employers to improve the conditions of service on farm workers especially women.
Secretary-General Golden Magwaza says a lot of work is being done in the fight for better conditions of service. “The trade union is negotiating with employers to ensure workers have contracts, which enables them to plan how to use their income. Wherever possible the union is fighting for a decent wage for workers and also against casualization of labor,” he said in an interview.
But the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), which is mostly involved in horticultural farming at a large scale, says the economic situation has been dire so they have had to cut costs. They have also not been able to attract investment due to the lack of security of tenure.
“Investing in Zimbabwean agriculture is considered high risk. The operating environment is not conducive without secure land tenure and respect for property rights. Investment needs to come along with a respected bundle of rights that are tradable, transferable and one [which the farmer] has accountability over. Farmers cannot get any reasonable borrowing from banks because they lack collateral security as they cannot use the productive resources to acquire long-term financing,” said the CFU in a written response to questions.
It said more and more farmers were resorting to casual contracts as they were unable to extend permanent contracts because they too were not certain of their security.