Union: farmworkers should get US-dollar wages

August 10, 2020

Government has been urged to direct farmers to pay farmworkers in United States dollars to mitigate the continuous erosion of wages through inflation. This follows a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) reached on 9 July 2020 that purports to increase farmworker wages by almost 100% but still leaves the wages way below the poverty datum line.

In the CBA wages were increased by 91.94% but the lowest paid workers gets Z$2,380 while the highest paid gets Z$4,708. At the official rate of conversion US$1 is worth Z$68. This means the new wages officially are between US$35 and US$69. The poverty datum line jumped by more than 100 percent from Z$3,398 (US$50) in May to Z$8,484 (US$125) in June, the country’s statistical agency ZimStats said in June. The annual rate of inflation was 737.3% in June, while monthly inflation rate rose to 31.7% from 15.1% in May according to ZimStats.

“Wages are low despite our efforts to negotiate monthly,” said Austin Muswere, secretary-general of the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe. “We are not happy with the outcome but we keep pushing for something better.”

He called on government to officially mandate that farmworker wages be paid in United States dollars. “As long as the government does not mandate the payment of wages in US dollars the erosion keeps depressing the farmworkers’ income.”

Government, through Statutory Instrument 86 of 2020, designated agricultural work an essential service in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite being an essential service, the government has not interfered with the remuneration of agriculture workers hence they continue to earn wages far below the food basket.

“The government deliberately excluded agriculture from the national minimum wage and this has negatively affected our negotiations,” Muswere said. Government does not enforce collective bargaining agreements in the agriculture sector hence employers in the sector rarely ever effect them. “Farmers have never accepted any wage increase,” Muswere said. “They cite viability challenges, liquidity problems, a shrinking market and the impact of COVID-19.”

Spokesman for the Commercial Farmers Union Chrispen Mununga said it was almost impossible to pay US dollar salaries due to the costs of production which have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Costs of production are quite high for farmers as they are being forced to buy local inputs which are usually more than double the prices of imported once,” Mununga said. “Non-food export markets have been affected. Costs of freight have been hiked because of low number of cargo flights.”

He said this has hit particularly hard the cut-flower industry but farmers were trying their best to cushion their workers from the severity of the hyperinflationary environment. “Times are difficult but farmers have tried what they can to proof their workers.”

Most farmers add food hampers to the workers’ wages but these hardly make a difference. “Not all workers are getting food hampers but we have tabled this in all negotiations and encouraged all employers to provide cost of living adjustments and food hampers,” Muswere said. “But wages in hard currency would help a great deal mitigate the farmworkers’ plight.”