Situation of Farm Workers After Land Reform

The Situation of Commercial Farm Workers after Land Reform in Zimbabwe

A report prepared for the Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe

by Lloyd M Sachikonye
May 2003
Edited by CIIR

Executive Summary


Land reform has brought about the most far-reaching redistribution of resources in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. After a slow but orderly process of redistribution between 1980 and 1999, a fast-track programme was implemented between 2000 and 2002. Variously termed 'an agrarian revolution', 'Third Chimurenga' (liberation struggle) or 'jambanja' (direct action), this latter phase of land reform involved the acquisition of 11 million hectares from white commercial farmers for redistribution in a process marked by considerable coercion and violence. An estimated 300,000 small farmers were resettled and about 30,000 black commercial farmers had received land by the end of 2002.

Prior to land reform, an estimated 320,000 to 350,000 farm workers were employed on commercial farms owned by about 4,500 white farmers. Their dependants numbered between 1.8 and 2 million (nearly 20 per cent of the country's population). How did farm workers fare in the massive redistribution of land? What was the broad impact on them? And what are their future prospects?

By the beginning of 2003, only about 100,000 farm workers, a third of the original workforce, were still employed on the farms and plantations. What was the fate of the other 200,000 or so, who together with their families amount to a population of more than 1 million? What sort of livelihoods do they have in the aftermath of land reform? Do they have enough to eat, given the big decline in crop output in the large-scale commercial farming sector? These issues are the subject of this report.

 The purpose of the report

This report aims to assess the situation of farm workers, in particular the profound effects of the fast-track land reform. Most farm workers face a very difficult situation. Up to two-thirds of them are jobless and landless. In many cases this means they have lost their entitlement to housing on the farms, to basic social services (health and education), and to subsidised food. Displaced workers are stranded on farms, while others seek to find shelter in fast-growing 'informal settlements' where social conditions are desperate. The study investigates these conditions and the coping strategies of farm workers. It also analyses the following:

  •         the impact of the decline in food security on farm workers
  •         the effects of the HIV-AIDS epidemic on their livelihoods and family structure
  •         the evolving relationships between farm workers, small farmers and commercial farmers
  •         the gender dimension in employment and access to land
  •         the immediate and long-term needs of farm workers.

The focus of this report derives from the mission and programme priorities of the Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe (FCTZ), which commissioned it. The FCTZ is a local non-governmental organisation committed to the empowerment of farm workers to achieve a better and secure life, and the creation of an environment conducive to the holistic growth of commercial farming communities. It has pursued this objective through a coordinated programme of community development, advocacy and communication targeted at those who can facilitate change in the sector. The significant reduction (by about 90 per cent) in the numbers of white commercial farms and of farm workers (about 70 per cent), and a concern for the welfare of displaced workers have inspired FCTZ to review its programme focus. Based on material from an extensive national survey completed in November 2002, this report is a contribution to that process of review. The survey was based on a sample of 160 farms and 977 farm worker households in eight provinces, and interviews with stakeholders in the commercial agricultural sector.

The context and broad impact of reform

 The report situates its assessment of the conditions of farm workers in the broader framework of the land question and the historical development of farm worker communities. The land question centred on the inequitable distribution of land between black and white populations. The compelling case for land reform was that of historical redress. In particular, land redistribution was desirable as an outlet for small farmers in the congested communal areas, and for the increasing numbers of landless.

The report provides a historical overview of the development of farm workers. Initially migrant labour drawn from neighbouring countries, their wages, working and living conditions were often poor. By the 1970s, however, the majority of farm workers were indigenous black people, who at the start of the fast-track reform constituted about 75 per cent of the farm workforce. Although conditions on some farms improved in the 1990s, they did not have security of tenure or adequate social safety nets on retirement. A marginalised and vulnerable group, their political and social rights were restricted for many years.

 In assessing the fast-track programme, the report shows how political and electoral calculations shaped the pace and direction of reform and explores the dynamics behind the various phases of the programme. The last phase of reform witnessed controversy over the allocation and ownership of model farms, leading to calls for a comprehensive audit of the programme.

The immediate consequences of the programme for crop production in the large-scale commercial sector include significant declines in output of maize (from 800,000 tonnes in 2000 to about 80,000 tonnes in 2003), wheat (from 225,000 tonnes in 2000 to less than 100,000 tonnes in 2003), soya beans (from 145,000 tonnes in 2000 to 30,000 in 2003) and tobacco (from 230 million kg in 2000 to about 70 million kg in 2003) (CFU, 2003). The declines will have profoundly negative consequences for the sector, gross domestic product (GDP) and foreign exchange earnings.

Effects on workers' livelihoods

 Drawing on field material gathered in October and November 2002 in eight provinces, the report explores the effects of land reform on employment and workers' livelihoods. About 90 per cent of the 160 farms surveyed had experienced a halt or drastic decline in production, and hence in employment, following the receipt of eviction orders from the government. Exceptions to the evictions and decline were large estates and plantations engaged in tea, coffee, sugar and livestock production, and those operating in export processing zones.

The overall picture is one of massive job losses - affecting about 70 per cent of the original farm workforce. More precise estimates are not possible. The loss of permanent worker status on farms is widespread. There is a pronounced trend towards contract or piece-work arrangements. Both the newly resettled small farmers and 'new' large commercial farmers lack the financial resources and production capacity to absorb the former permanent workers.

However, despite the large job losses, a considerable proportion of farm workers remain living on the farms. There is evidence to suggest that up to 50 per cent of farm workers stayed on even if they no longer held jobs. In general, female workers suffered greater loss of employment. The survey data suggests that more than 50 per cent of permanent female workers and nearly 60 per cent of seasonal female workers lost their jobs. This compares with 30 and 33 per cent respectively for permanent and seasonal male workers. The data also indicate a decline in permanent and seasonal female workers (by 63 per cent and 42 per cent respectively) living on farms. That substantial proportion of female and male workers no longer living on farms must be experiencing considerable hardship, wherever they are now.

In the survey sample, only about a quarter of the farm workers who lost jobs had received severance packages by the end of 2002. The packages would have cushioned them against loss of income, at least for a few months. Those who did not receive packages expect to seek piece-work and other income-earning opportunities. In sum, the loss of a regular job-based income has undermined the livelihoods of most farm worker households.

An unfortunate development is farm workers' diminishing access to crucial resources and services. Change in farm ownership has restricted access to housing, schools, clinics and safe water. Where a farm owner has been evicted, the running and maintenance of the school and payment of the teaching staff often cease, leading to the school's closure. Most early child education centres (ECECs) have also been closed down, as have farm clinics.

Food security, vulnerable groups, HIV-AIDS and coping strategies

Land reform has had a direct impact on food security at national level as well as on farm workers' requirements. The decline in maize and wheat production since 2000 was compounded in 2001-02 and 2002-03 by a major drought affecting the entire southern Africa region. In Zimbabwe, however, the disruptions associated with 'land invasions' further undermined crop production. For jobless farm workers, access to food has been difficult and irregular. Food aid has been made available to some of those without a livelihood, and to children under five and those of school age. The role of the FCTZ in the three Mashonaland provinces and in Manicaland has been pivotal in this. There have been deaths from starvation in several provinces. Moreover, despite efforts to provide food aid, the incidence of malnutrition is increasing among farm workers' children on farms and in informal settlements.

Like other social groups, farm workers have been vulnerable to the HIV-AIDS epidemic. The prevalence rate among them in the 20-49 year age group is estimated at higher than 25 per cent. The consequences include a rise in the number of orphans and child-headed households. Extended family and nuclear family structures are under severe stress as household assets are drawn upon to treat people with AIDS-related sicknesses. Resources and home-based care institutions for the sick are very limited. Constant food shortages mean poor nutrition for AIDS patients, among others.

Other vulnerable groups in the farm worker community include migrant workers and their descendants, women, the elderly, youth and children. Most migrant workers or their descendants have no communal homes, land or jobs to fall back on. There is no social safety net for the elderly and retired workers, or for women concentrated in insecure, seasonal jobs.

In response to the loss of permanent jobs and access to shelter and social services, farm workers have pursued a number of coping strategies. These include the itinerant search for piece-work jobs at different farms at different times, informal trade, gold panning, fishing and hunting. Income from these activities is irregular and limited, but the workers appear to have no other options. The working conditions and wages on the farms of small and new commercial farmers are unattractive. A few farm worker households receive remittances from relatives working elsewhere. Some farm workers have created or joined 'informal settlements' on which they have access to a small piece of land, and to basic, often-rudimentary social services.

Towards the future

The report concludes with an examination of the emerging relationship between the new farmers, both small and large, and farm workers. While the former have been, by and large, beneficiaries of land reform, the latter have not, despite appeals for land through their union, the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers' Union (GAPWUZ). A somewhat uneasy relationship exists between the beneficiaries and the farm workers. There have been conflicts over continued access to farm housing for farm workers, and over resources such as land, water and food. However, there are also instances of peaceful co-existence on some farms.

Although there has been a substantial decline in union membership, owing to job losses, about 75 per cent of the union members interviewed still belonged to GAPWUZ. However, the newly-created and state-sponsored Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions (ZFTU) also appears to have members, at least in a few provinces such as Masvingo. The challenges that GAPWUZ faces are new and manifold. It will need to re-assess its mission, focus and strategies, now that the farm worker community is substantially reduced in size.

In assessing the immediate and medium-term needs of farm workers, the report draws on priorities suggested by those interviewed for the survey. Not surprisingly, they identified the more immediate needs of farm workers as food and land. When the field research was conducted, in October and November 2002, food scarcity was a major problem and a livelihood crisis was mounting. This explains the priority attached to the resources of food and land. Other priority needs were income generating projects (requested in particular by women respondents), crop inputs, social infrastructure and services.

The report also presents recommendations for interventions by non-governmental organistions (NGOs), governments and donors to avert an evolving crisis.

For the complete document click here