Zimbabwe’s child labour cartels

Child Labour in Zimbabwe

Being provided only with home-made sandals cobbled from worn-out tyres and canvas aprons for their protection razor-sharp tea stumps slash their legs as tea plantations exploit their determination to get an education through an ill-defined Earn and Learn programme at four Tanganda Tea Company run and Zimbabwe Government recognised schools in Chipinge. Avontuur, Ratelshoek, Zona and Jersey schools have a combined enrolment of over 1 000 pupils and the tea the children pick dominate the Zimbabwe’s local and export markets. Heavily scared legs always give them away. Denied to be children – their blood irrigate the fields and their labours sustain profits. Sadly its children who value and are committed to get an education who are being exploited in what he called government supported ‘labour cartels,’ an employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation said. With the work schedule, he added, its only exceptionally gifted children who make it which is then construed to mean the system is being beneficial and safe.

The system was initially designed for adults pursuing an education they had been denied as children, acting Manicaland Provincial Education Director, Andrew Chigumira said. Today though, children as young as 12 are enrolled in Earn and Learn programmes as it starts at 6th grade. Priorities are clear here – the children school five days but labour six each week. While the normal school calendar is followed, at work they only rest 2 weeks in a year to exclude 3 days during Christmas time. During academic holidays, as if to make up for lost time, they labour for the whole day. Rising at 0430 hours they are only retired for bed at 2130 hours each schooling day. In summer they slave uninterrupted for six hours before school each day. They then attend class for another six hours before a further two-hour compulsory study. In winter, they start school while it is yet dark – 0530 hours and are released at noon for lunch before work which starts at 1300 till 1730 hours. The ‘subsidised fees’ are $5 for tuition, accommodation $3 and food $3 a month but they work for a dollar for every 60 kilograms of 2 leaves and bud of tea. They are given the difference after deductions from their earnings. The most proficient children pick up to 200 kilograms per day but stretching to such limits comes at the expense of their ability to concentrate in class.

While some children are pushed into the exploitative schooling engagements by necessity as a debilitating HIV epidemic and extreme poverty interact viciously. Others however risk early arthritis, poor bone development and will have to pay for it over their lifetime through loss of health, education and other opportunities because their families appear to see it as a viable alternative said interviewed employees. Ironically, these estates pay for its senior managers’ children fees at expensive schools, even outside the country, one employee said. After up to six years of picking tea from the 6th grade to Zimbabwe’s most important academic huddle – Ordinary level most are failing. “By the time some children sit for their exams they would have long lost hope and would be in it for whatever money they can make,” he said. From the 2010 school rankings of the 280 secondary schools in Manicaland Province based on their ordinary level academic performances the best school among them was Avontuur ranked 68th with a 17,2% pass rate, followed by 105 placed Jersey with a 15% pass rate, Ratelshoek coming at 146th with 10% then finally Zona at 218 with a 5% pass rate. Students who slept in class always presented a dilemma for a former Ratelshoek relief teacher as waking them would appear insensitive but failing to do so mean they lose on the objects of their labours. Noting that ‘depending on the age of the child the work may be strenuous’ Chigumira concedes that children offer tea estates cheaper labour as there are limited if any financial overheads in mandatory statutory social security or insurance. Lower production costs keep the product cheaper and competitive on the market. Children gifted in sport are doomed in these systems.

This is also an area the acting Provincial Director feels will need to be raised with the schools. Many children however are routinely forced out of school due to nagging health problems, say interviewed adult workmates and former students something Chigumira professed ignorance of. Rumbidzai Sigauke picked tea and learnt at Jersey from grade 6 to form 2 dropping out due to a deep ankle wound that refused to heal. Among her 3 mothers she was the 8th among their 24 children but the 1st born with her mother. All her siblings attended Jersey primary school lower grades only 7 enrolled into the Earn and Learn programme in 6th grade with only 2 managing to reach form 4 the other 5 dropping out due to injury. Uneducated, she now scavenges for menial work across Mutare’s high density suburb of Dangamvura. Johanna on the other hand was forced onto the estate by orphan hood. She was enrolled at the school for a full 4 school terms. Johanna’s father passed on before her 5th birthday living 3 children. By age 13, her mother had remarried and had 2 more children. She faced having to drop out of school after 7th grade but refused the option. An uneducated life was going to be too expensive for her, she said. Determined, she had to trade her childhood for the opportunity. At 13 she journeyed 250 kilometres alone from Mutare to Jersey High School.

While her mother objected to the idea, she said, she still handed her the bus fare she asked for. She had heard about the school from a friend who had been sent to Zona. Armed only with sketchy directions and the school’s recruitment procedure she got lost in the vast estate but managed to run into the Estate Manager who took her to the school headmaster. While she was turned down promptly she had to lie that she had no return bus fare. “The Headmaster took me to the Matron to find me some accommodation while he tried to organise for the school to give me some bus fare,” she said. 3 days later, she was informed she had secured a place. Entering into such a contract with the child is an acceptable norm, said locals. The picturesque views of tea estates are breathtakingly beautiful making the work surprisingly dangerous, she said. You would see snakes, she said, with a number of her colleagues snipping some green mambas by mistake and only seeing them writhing headless or entangled on their shears after which some would quit due to shock or a phobia of snakes. Wounds often force some to drop out, she said. “If you happen even to get a scratch it would grow as you would expose it to dewdrops every morning and dirt so some wounds become septic and grow taking long to heal,” she added.

The weight of tea in wire and sack baskets strapped to the back and inadequate sleep have others vomiting blood and complaining of chest pains which finally also forced her back home. Other risks, she told Newstime Africa, included ants, a green spiky insect that could trigger rushes throughout your body once you make contact or other skin irritating climber plants. Working along the Zimbabwe and Mozambique landmine riddled border there is also the risk of land mines just on the edge of some of the fields. “In my last term at the school a certain boy almost stepped on a landmine,” she claimed. A nurse at a clinic close to one of the estates said she was shocked one day to see and attempt to treat a deep septic wound on a form one pupil who worked and learnt at one of the schools who had gone home to recuperate and seek medical attention. “The boy looked really small at first I thought he could have been 11 years old or younger. He was 14,” she told Newstime Africa. Poorly prepared relish has also meant teachers’ wives scavenge off the children’s earnings by selling them properly prepared relish, Johanna said. According to a 2010 UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, 13 percent of Zimbabwean children are engaged in child labour which is illegal as the country is a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and its Labour Act prohibits employers from hiring a person under 18 to perform hazardous work. The Children’s Act also makes it an offence to exploit children through employment.

A 2011 US Department of Labour report on the worst forms of child labour found that these laws were poorly enforced by inspectors who had no special training or resources to address the issue. The report notes that “to date, there have been no investigations or arrests in Zimbabwe for violations related to child labour.” Another study of child labour in Zimbabwe conducted by the Ministry of Labour together with international and local partners including ILO and UNICEF, released in June 2011, concluded that “the prevalence of the worst forms of child labour is on the rise and cause for concern.” The report identified poverty as the main driver of children being employed, along with “the breakdown of the family unit due to HIV and AIDS, as well as the inadequacy of the social services delivery system.” Conditions for children working on farms were “particularly difficult”, according to the report, as children were often exposed to bad weather, dangerous chemicals and the use of heavy machinery. Paurina Mupariwa, the labour and social welfare minister, was recently quoted by IRIN as claiming that the government had “a cocktail of interventions to address the problem”, including programmes such as the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM), which aims to keep children in school by assisting poor families with school and examination fees. “It is clear that one of the major reasons why children are forced to go and work as labourers is the inability of their parents or guardians to pay school fees,” she said. Quoted in the same article, John Robertson, a Harare-based economic consultant, said Zimbabwe’s protracted economic crisis had hamstrung the government’s capacity to combat child labour.

© 2012, Bernard Chiketo. All rights reserved. – The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not necessarily those of the publishers. – Newstime Africa content cannot be reproduced in any form – electronic or print – without prior consent of the Publishers. Copyright infringement will be pursued and perpetrators prosecuted.

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