Economic migration drives child labour

Children on the Chiredzi sugar estates work for an average of 12 hours per day but earn as little as $30 per month. They have been left behind by parents and guardians desperate to find work elsewhere. MARAMBA GONESE reports.

Migration of adults has become a major driver of child labour in this sprawling district, about 193km east of Masvingo.

This is considered one of the poorest areas in the province. Rains are scarce and, when they come, they cause floods because the district is low-lying. Rural households suffer perennial food shortages.

Parents and guardians are leaving rural and urban Chiredzi in big numbers, hoping to beat poverty by seeking employment in neighbouring countries, particularly South Africa and Botswana.

Their departure as economic migrants, an informal investigation revealed, has left scores of children behind who have no choice but to become child labourers in order to fend for themselves and the remaining family members.

Cannot return

Most of the adult migrants, according to villagers, Chiredzi town residents and children, struggle to get gainful employment and go for long periods without remitting money back to the children. Many cannot return to Zimbabwe because they cannot even raise money for bus fare.

It was not possible to establish the exact number of children employed as labourers on the estates as most of the casual and full-time employers were not keen to be investigated and figures were based on varying estimates given by interviews, but most villagers testified to children leaving school to gain income for the families.

The children have no option but to work on nearby farms and plantations to look after their siblings and, in some case, grandparents.

Economic burdens

Interviewed children, with permission from remaining extended family members, said they had to confront the economic burdens associated with typical child-headed families.

“We are forced to work because we have no one to look after us. My father and mother left us three years ago and I had stop going to school to work in the sugar estates to raise money for food for my three other siblings,” said 13-year-old Nomsa Chauke (not her real name) from Chilonga.

The younger family members—two brothers aged 11 and 9 and a sister aged 7—have stopped going to school, and sometimes help her in the plantations. The farmer pays according to the amount of sugar cane chopped and cleared.

Children on the estates work for an average of 12 hours per day but earn as little as $30 per month.

A girl left alone by parents who migrated to Botswana said the parents hit a bad patch and are hopping from one odd job to another to another. They make just enough for their food as they rely on piece jobs loading containers from haulage trucks in the capital Gaborone.


But, according to the locals, nationwide company closures and retrenchments are throwing some of the Chiredzi breadwinners out of employment and forcing them to return home, sometimes empty- handed because their former employers cannot afford to pay severance packages.

According to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), more that 9,000 people lost their jobs as 75 company closed last year, saying more are set to follow suit this year.

Some of the retrenched parents and guardians, used to work for sugar estates in the Lowveld but stopped due to poor salaries and wages, especially when they got employed by farmers resettled under the land reform programme that started in 2000.

By allowing the children to work in the plantations the owners are violating the constitution of Zimbabwe Section 19(3a) which stipulates that the state must protect children from exploitative practices.

HIV to blame

A Masvingo provincial senior government official who declined to be named attributed the prevailing child labour mostly to HIV/AIDS that has claimed family heads, rather than labour migrations.

“We cannot say the main reason of this rise is migration of parents to neighbouring countries. Most of these kids are forced to work for themselves because they lost their parents to the HIV/AIDS,” said the government official.

The General Agricultural and Plantations Workers Union, a labour body that represent workers in the agricultural sector, acknowledged that labour migration was behind the rise of child labour in the Lowveld and urged government to intervene.

“As a labour union representing employees in the agriculture sector we have also noted that the issue of massive labour migration of the working age group was the reason to the rise of child labour. The children are left without any one to take care of and end up working for a living,” said Merenziana Chikonzi, Gapuwz Masvingo provincial officer.

Govt to blame

Despite evidence of scores of children working on estates, the Commercial Sugar Cane Farmers Association of Zimbabwe, an organization formed by war veterans and new farmers who grabbed land in the plantations, denied hiring child labourers, preferring to describe them as welfare cases.

“We are not forcing these children to work on our farms. Some come to help their parents them while others make their independent decisions to work for us and we help them to survive,” said Admore Hwarare who is also former Zanu (PF) provincial Commissar.

But child right groups say government should be held accountable for the rise of child labour as its policies are responsible for the economic turmoil that is causing migration of the able bodied citizens leaving children at the expense of exploitation and suffering.

“Government should take the blame because the whole problem is stemming from its failure to run the economy of the country. Children end up being exploited in the labour market, be it in the agriculture sector or elsewhere because they have to work to escape hardships as the people who should be providing for them are forced to leave the country,” said Prosper Tiringindi, Masvingo Coalition against Child Labour(MCCL) Chairman.

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